There were no losers in rare US Open Black men’s matchup

OPINION: The Round of 16 match between Frances Tiafoe and Felix Auger-Aliassime lived up to the hype as a tough, gritty, suspenseful battle that was decided by just a few moments.

Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and Frances Tiafoe of the United States
Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and Frances Tiafoe of the United States meet at center court after Auger-Aliassime won during their Men’s Singles round of 16 match on Day Seven at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 05, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

In a stadium named for Arthur Ashe, just feet away from a statue of Althea Gibson, there was a titanic Sunday night prime time battle between two of the most exciting rising stars of tennis — Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime and Marylander Frances Tiafoe. These two Black men took very different roads to get to their first ever meeting. FAA, as Felix is called, is 21 years old and #15 in the world. He’s a smooth, silky, graceful athlete with perfect technique — he hits the ball the way you would teach juniors to play which makes sense because his father is a tennis coach. 

His opponent, his friend, 23-year-old Frances Tiafoe, aka Big Foe, does not hit the ball in a way you would not encourage kids to emulate. He looks, well, idiosyncratic. A less polite person might say he looks awkward at times. His serve motion looks more like the autodidactic motions you see at public parks rather than the polished motions you see at the Florida academies but he can crank that serve up to 130 mph when he wants. He’s #50 in the world but he’ll be higher than that next week because he beat the world #7 to get to this match.

Foe came to tennis because his father was a custodian at a tennis center in College Park, Maryland — he started getting free lessons there because of his dad. Both FFA and Big Foe are the sons of African immigrants — Felix’s Dad moved from Togo, Frances’s parents from Sierra Leone. Where Felix is more thin and wiry, Foe is stockier and stronger. With his big arms and barrel chest he looks like he would be at home in rugby where 6-foot-4 Felix looks like he maybe could’ve been a point guard. It’s clear who would win a fistfight (Foe) and who would win a footrace (Felix) and while strength and speed matter in tennis, that’s not the whole ballgame. 

In tennis you’re out onstage all alone for hours so it’s highly mental, especially when there’s lots of pressure and there was a lot at stake in this match — the loser of this match would get a check for $265,000 while the winner would get at least $425,000. Felix has made over $1 million this year in prize money, while Foe has made over $600,000, so these US Open prizes are not insignificant to them. There’s also little stuff like ranking points, reputation, prestige, and legacy on the line. So their first tennis match against each other was important. And it lived up to the hype as a tough, gritty, suspenseful battle that was decided by just a few moments.

Foe loves to play to the crowd and as he grabbed the early lead and won the first set 6-4 he preened and flexed and brashly stuck out his chin, egging on the US Open crowd. They loved it and roared their approval. Felix is more of a reserved introvert on the court, he’s not one to gesture to the crowd. He seems like he’d be just the same playing in an empty stadium. He was cool as he recovered from the first set and found a higher gear and grabbed the second set 6-2. The heart of the match came in the third set. Both men were relentless, hitting hard, going for broke, and playing all out no matter the score.

Neither one lost a service game — Foe came closest when serving to stay in the set at 4-5. He got down 15-40. He served an ace and then at 30-40 worked his way into net and hit a delicate short volley winner. The man had ice in his veins. The crowd roared for his grit, his character, his courage when his back was to the wall. Soon they were locked in a tight tiebreaker that was big serve after big serve, 130 mph bombs over and over from both of them. They got to 3-all and stayed within a point of each other, rarely hitting more than two shots per point. It was big serve, ace. Big serve, missed return. Big serve, ace. If they were boxers it was like they were trading knockout blows. Felix hit another big serve to edge his way from 6-all to a set point. With his back to the wall again Foe hit a big serve but Felix returned it and Foe missed a tough but makeable forehand. Foe faltered. Now Felix had the lead two sets to one.

Canadian tennis player Felix Auger-Aliassime and American player Frances Tiafoe compete at US Open.
Left to right: Canadian tennis player Felix Auger-Aliassime and American player Frances Tiafoe compete at US Open. (Photo: Getty Images)

They say tennis is a game of concentration — often the winner is who can stay locked in and focused longer because in a tight match like this, a mind that wanders for a moment can cost you everything. In the 4th set, which Foe had to win, he started out flat. He played with a little less energy and concentration. It seemed like a little air had come out of his balloon after such a tense 3rd set. He had a chance to get back on track in the next game — Foe grabbed a love-40 lead on Felix’s serve. A critical moment. But the Canadian cranked up his serve and blasted his way to winning five points in a row. He won that game and clung to the one break of serve he needed and never relented, winning the last set 6-4.

But as they heartily embraced at the net after it was over it felt like there were no losers. It was a great night where two Black men battled on a tennis court that so many great Black players had battled on this year — former Open champs Sloane Stephens and Naomi Osaka and probable future champ Coco Gauff had played on this court. They remain two of the greatest and most successful tennis players of all time so as far as Black tennis goes, the modern generation — the one emerging from the massive shadow of Queen Serena Williams — this generation cannot say they are our ancestors’ wildest dream. Not when our ancestors Althea and Arthur won Wimbledon and the US Open and they haven’t. But the modern generation is surely making their tennis mothers and fathers extremely proud.


Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcasts Toure Show and Democracyish and the podcast docuseries Who Was Prince? He is also the author of six books.

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