Roger Federer might be the favorite to win the 2017 U.S. Open, but his debut on Tuesday hardly went as planned. In the biggest surprise of the nascent tournament yet, 19-year-old Frances Tiafoe took Federer to the brink: It took the 19-time Grand Slam champion five sets to beat the young American 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4.
Nobody really expected Federer to breeze his way to the final in Flushing Meadows, so perhaps it's a bit premature to push the panic button. He's still a clear favorite to win the tournament. But what in the world happened on Tuesday?
Federer came out flat, failing to hold serve in the opening game of the match and dropping the first set to Tiafoe 6-4. But he appeared to find his form in the second and third sets, while Tiafoe appeared to lose some of the intensity that characterized his early play. Instead of putting Tiafoe away in the fourth set, however, Federer did his best Monstars impersonation, uncharacteristically missing routine shots and allowing Tiafoe to regain confidence. The swing of momentum was shocking.
Federer finally overcame Tiafoe in the fifth set, waking up from his fourth-set slumber to seal a place in the second round. Even the decider was tougher than it needed to be: Tiafoe broke Federer at 5-3 before Federer broke back to clinch the win. But while fans of Federer can give their nails a break after Tuesday's anxiety-inducing match, it's hard not to be concerned about Federer's form.
It's possible Federer's misstep against Tiafoe was simply due to rust. Federer's success this season is partially attributable to his conservative scheduling, which saw him skip substantial chunks of the season to preserve his fitness. He missed the last few months of 2016, of course, due to a knee problem before winning in Melbourne, and he skipped the clay court season this year to maintain his health for Wimbledon—clearly a good decision considering the outcome. But Federer's hard-court circuit was cut short this year by a back injury, which hampered him in Montreal and caused him to withdraw from Cincinnati.
Federer is perfectly capable of finding his game, and a tough early–round match isn't always indicative of a player's second-week fate. (Last year's champion, Stan Wawrinka, saved a match point in a five-set victory last year over Dan Evans in the third round.) The bigger concern is the 36-year-old's health. If his back isn't fully fit, that's a major issue going forward in a best-of-five tournament on hard courts.
Federer certainly could have used a straight-sets victory on Tuesday to give his body a break, but Tiafoe deserves tremendous credit for his resilience and courage. Federer clearly didn't play anything remotely resembling his best tennis, but Tiafoe didn't look fazed at all by the glare of an Arthur Ashe Stadium night session against the greatest men's tennis player ever.
Tiafoe may have lost on Tuesday, but after beating Alexander Zverev in Cincinnati and nearly knocking out Roger Federer at the U.S. Open, it's not too much to expect the young American to seriously compete for big titles in 2018. Some technical aspects of the teenager's game are still wanting, but he's on the cusp of a breakthrough. If you didn't know his name before Tuesday, remember it—Frances Tiafoe looks like a star in the making. Or maybe he already is one.