Roger Federer nearly got an unceremonious boot from the U.S. Open late Tuesday night, when American teenage upstart Frances Tiafoe took the five-time Open champion to the limit before the Swiss legend emerged with a nail-biting, five-set victory – 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 – that ended just before midnight.
“It was more than a test, it was a good one. It was exciting,” said Federer after the first-round victory.
On match point No. 3, and with Tiafoe serving, the teenager from Maryland netted a return and Federer raised his arms in weary triumph as the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd roared. Never did a 19-time Grand Slam singles champion look so relieved to be done with a tennis match. Tiafoe had broken Federer in a thrilling ninth game of the fifth set, ripping a forehand winner and then yelling to the crowd, which included his twin brother Franklin.
But Federer, the No. 3 seed, then returned the favor in the tenth and final game of the match and he moves on to the second round.
“He is the greatest of all time,” Tiafoe said after the match. “It’s something I’ll think about for a while.”
After a year’s hiatus from the final Grand Slam event of the season, Federer entered Ashe Stadium to an ovation worthy of a rock star Tuesday night, with a wild purple light show flashing against the closed roof (rain had wiped out much of Tuesday’s action) and the packed stands, and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blaring over the sound system.
But it was the elegant Swiss tennis duke and five-time U.S. Open champion who looked thunderstruck and out of sync from the start against the 19-year-old Tiafoe, and Federer needed everything he had to avoid an embarrassing first-round punt.
“I really struggled early on,” said Federer. “I was misjudging distance, being a bit cautious. I was quite up and down.”
Federer, 36, dropped the first set in very un-Federer like fashion, hitting shots into the net and making unforced errors (he had 56 total in the match), while the energetic Tiafoe blistered forehands from the baseline and gamely chased down every Federer shot. It was all Tiafoe in the early going, as he broke Federer in the first game of the match, before skipping merrily off the court as the crowd roared its approval.
By the third game of the first set, Federer double-faulted to go down 15-30, and fans shouted, “Roger!” Federer ended up winning that game, but seemed lost throughout the set. Fans soon chanted their support for Tiafoe, as the Maryland product zipped around the court. Tiafoe was profiled on an HBO “Real Sports” segment earlier this year, and his parents fled the war-torn West African nation of Sierra Leone before settling in Maryland.
In the second set, Federer wasted no time getting back to being Roger Federer. He held serve in the first game, and then finally broke Tiafoe in the fourth game when Tiafoe’s backhand sailed wide. On set point, Federer broke Tiafoe again when the teenage phenom whacked a return wide. Federer, who missed the 2016 Open while recovering from knee surgery, proceeded to run a tennis clinic in the third set, only dropping the fourth game.
After Tiafoe stormed through the fourth set easily, he seemed to become unraveled in the decisive fifth set, falling behind 4-1 before staging a comeback. Ultimately, Roger Federer was Roger Federer – poised and decisive when it counted the most.
Among the luminaries taking in the Federer-Tiafoe match were the original 007 James Bond, Sean Connery, and Vogue editrix Anna Wintour, a longtime Federer admirer.
NOTE: In the earlier night match at Ashe Stadium Tuesday, American Madison Keys, the No. 15 women’s seed, dispatched Belgian Elise Merlens, 6-3, 7-6 (6).
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