NEW YORK (AP) — They were 10 words, 10 simple and factual and essentially harmless words — “It’s 20 years since Andy Roddick won the singles here …” — yet as soon as that phrase hung in the air at Frances Tiafoe’s pre-U.S. Open news conference, and before the question could be completed, the 25-year-old from Maryland rolled his eyes.
And then, in case that wasn’t enough to convey how he felt, Tiafoe rolled his whole head, too, and shook it. Then he smiled that wide smile he so often displays and chuckled a bit before pointing out: “I knew that was what you’re going to say.”
Once the query was resumed, it became about Roddick’s legacy as the last man from the United States to win a major singles title, taking a roundabout approach to a topic Tiafoe is so used to hearing about. As play is set to begin in the American Grand Slam tournament on Monday — with Tiafoe, a surprise semifinalist in 2022, taking on Learner Tien, a 17-year-old from California appearing in his second tour-level match — that record-long gap for the country is, without a doubt, one of the top storylines.
“I don’t really have a memory of Roddick winning, but I definitely remember which year he won, because I’m asked about it in every interview,” Tiafoe told The Associated Press recently. “I was close to changing that narrative last year. So, we’ll see. I think it’s definitely coming for us — and I hope it does pretty soon.”
After a long period of not being all that relevant in the game — something due in part, at least, to the dominance of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — the nation that produced Bill Tilden and John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and Jim Courier and others is starting to matter again.
Tiafoe knocked out 22-time major champion Nadal in the fourth round a year ago in New York before losing to eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz. Tommy Paul made it two major semifinal appearances in a row for the U.S. men by getting there at the Australian Open in January before bowing out against eventual champion Djokovic.
What would it mean if No. 10 Tiafoe or No. 14 Paul or any of the five total seeded Americans in the men’s bracket, the most since 2004 — a group that includes No. 9 Taylor Fritz, No. 28 Chris Eubanks and No. 31 Sebastian Korda — were to have that sort of breakthrough?
“It would change the whole scope of it. Now we’ve got a new guy to look at. The drought is over. It would be a huge day in America. People would be super excited. It would be sweet. You’re in that realm with those guys, legends like Johnny Mac, Jim Courier. All those guys. Agassi. Sampras,” Tiafoe told the AP. “It would be a huge day, and hopefully all those guys would be there. It would change the whole narrative, for sure.”
Women from the U.S. don’t have to go back nearly as far to find a champ, of course.
Serena Williams won 17 of her 23 Slam trophies in singles after Roddick’s triumph; Venus Williams claimed three of her seven in that span. There also are two more recent successes: Sloane Stephens at the 2017 U.S. Open and Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open.
Plus, an American woman made it to a major final just last year: Coco Gauff was the French Open runner-up against Iga Swiatek. No American man has gotten that far since Roddick lost to Federer in the title match at Wimbledon in 2009.
Did that weigh on those who have played in the time since?
“Maybe a little bit. It has been a long time. It’s the longest stretch this country’s ever had, for sure,” said John Isner, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2018 and for many years the top American man, who has announced that he will retire after this U.S. Open.
“We’ll see. I think American men’s tennis is in a very good spot right now,” Isner said. “I mean, who knows? Like, that could keep going because the No. 1 player (Alcaraz) is pretty good and very young.”
Mahoney reported from New York; Fendrich reported from Washington.