Carlos Alcaraz beats Frances Tiafoe at Wimbledon in five-set escape


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Carlos Alcaraz nearly crashed out at Wimbledon Friday, at the hands of a familiar foe.

The defending champion came back from a two-sets-to one deficit against Frances Tiafoe, who pushed him to the edge two years ago at the U.S. Open and nearly knocked him over on Centre Court.

Again, he didn’t quite pull it off. Alcaraz came alive, running away with the fourth-set tiebreak and the fifth set to prevail 5-7, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6(2) 6-2.

“He’s so tough,” Alcaraz said of Tiafoe.

He hasn’t been in a while, but he sure was Friday. 

For the better part of three hours, Tiafoe took advantage of a familiar sort of off-day for Alcaraz, an afternoon scattered with off-the-mark forehands, questionable decisions and struggles with making quality serve returns against a player who relishes the big stage like few others, and played his best tennis of the year, or maybe even two.

But with his hopes for the tournament resting on the outcome of a fourth-set tiebreak, it was Alcaraz who came alive.

His strokes picked up velocity and shot for the lines as they rarely had all day. Suddenly, after pushing Alcaraz onto the ropes for nearly two sets, Tiafoe was the one on the defensive — unable to match the kind of tennis that Alcaraz can play, but basically no-one on the tour can handle. Alcaraz won seven of nine points in the tiebreaker, and six of the next seven games.

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The win keeps Alcaraz’s hopes alive for pulling off  one of the toughest tasks in tennis or perhaps any sport — winning the French Open on clay, the slowest surface in the sport, in June, and then capturing Wimbledon on grass, the fastest surface, in July. The win keeps him on a collision course for a semifinal showdown against Jannik Sinner, the world No. 1.

Novak Djokovic and his surgically repaired right knee are on the other side of the draw.


 For Tiafoe, the match was nearly everything he has been striving for — and not coming anywhere near — since his quarterfinal loss to Ben Shelton at the U.S. Open last September. Since then he has struggled with his game and his motivation, especially when matches start to turn against him. Coming into Wimbledon, he was 14-15 this season.

The tide started to change for Tiafoe earlier this week, when he came back from two sets down for the first time in his career against Mateo Arnaldi. Tiafoe said when he was a set away from getting on the plane, he wasn’t even thinking about coming back. He let go and tried to have fun from one point to the next and then the next thing he knew he was cruising through the fifth set and and moving onto the next round.

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Tiafoe took Alcaraz the distance at a Grand Slam for the second time. (Glyn Kirk / AFP via Getty Images)

From there he knew what his likely reward would be for beating  Borna Coric in round two: A date with Alcaraz on Centre Court, the kind of “popcorn match.” as he put it, that so often brings out the best in him. It certainly did on Friday — until Alcaraz became too much, as he so often does at the most important moments.

Tiafoe played with a kind of fearlessness and confidence that has been missing in action. Most importantly, he played with a renewed joy, even in those dying embers when Alcaraz pulled off the sort of magic that he has become known for. Big, unreturnable serves? Smile. Forehand missiles down the line? Shrug, move on, with a kind of resilience he has been struggling to find.  

Before the tiebreak, Alcaraz played his best tennis in the second half of the second set, raising his level and trying to find his form by embracing his power, like a fastball pitcher throwing heat into the middle of the strike zone and daring Tiafoe to get it back and out-slug him.

It worked for a bit, as Alcaraz knotted the match at a set apiece, but in the third set, Tiafoe started jumping on Alcaraz’s serve again, sending him backpedaling and chasing while holding his own serve with ease.

Until the fourth-set tiebreaker, it was all Alcaraz could do to stay even with Tiafoe. And then the change came, so fast, but so clear.  First he chased down a short volley from Tiafoe for a passing shot to go up 2-0 in the tiebreaker. Then, with Tiafoe serving to try to keep it close, Alcaraz crushed an inside out forehand across the court with a force that sent a message everyone in a packed Centre Court could hear.

“I was just thinking about the next ball and telling myself that I have to go for it, if I lose it I lose it,” he said. 

He doesn’t lose it. Not here.

(Top photo: Zac Goodwin / PA Images via Getty Images)



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