There are so many different kinds of pressure that tennis players can exert on their opponents over the course of a match.
Blasting massive serve after massive serve. Hitting deep. Hounding the baseline to push the opponent on the other side of the net into the back of the court. Rushing the net and standing tall there, unafraid, just 35 feet away. There is even the pressure of the scoreboard that comes with early leads in games, or of the softest drop shots that can land like uppercuts to the gut.
An ability to get a crowd of more than 20,000 to raise the decibel count to uncomfortable levels at the crucial moments also helps.
Frances Tiafoe used all those skills and more in his tight three-set win over Andrey Rublev of Russia on Wednesday that turned on a handful of points during those critical tests of nerve known as tiebreakers. Tiafoe won, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0), 6-4, in a match that was so even for so long, except when Tiafoe surged during tiebreakers.
No American man has won the U.S. Open or any Grand Slam singles title since 2003. Sam Querrey, a big-serving Californian, plowed into the Wimbledon semifinals in 2016 and John Isner got there in 2018. But even then, those moments felt like the ceilings they turned out to be.
This is different. At 24, Tiafoe was the youngest American to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 16 years. He is fast and fearless, and serves at more than 130 m.p.h in game after game. He is suddenly steady after years of being prone to peaks and valleys in the middle of sets and matches. His hands have always been quick; now they are soft as well and able to create the calmest drop volleys off the most furious forehands.
And after one last, blasted ace, he became a U.S. Open semifinalist.