Roger Federer took his first step toward a potential sixth U.S. Open championship Tuesday with a dramatic 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 victory over 19-year-old Frances Tiafoe at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City.
The third-seeded Federer missed the 2016 U.S. Open following knee surgery but already has two major titles this year, prevailing at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. It was a significant mismatch on paper considering the young Tiafoe has won just seven ATP matches in his career, but he pushed the Swiss star to a fifth and final set before ultimately falling to the legend.
While it was far from straightforward, the final result was more of the same at the U.S. Open for the 19-time major winner. He sported a sparkling 78-11 record at the event entering Tuesday's match, and ESPN Stats & Info underscored how effective he has been at the tournament throughout his illustrious career:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
As Federer aims to continue his great year at the US Open, take a Look Again courtesy of @DeloitteUS at what he can accomplish at the event. https://t.co/l3SAkuZ4t42017-8-29 21:00:00
Still, it was Tiafoe who seized initial momentum by breaking in the first game. He didn't let up from there and took advantage of shaky play from his opponent, winning the first set 6-4.
Federer never broke back in the first after the opening effort from the American, and there was some tension from his perspective after he withdrew from the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati with a back injury.
Naila-Jean Meyers of the New York Times weighed in on the developments:
Naila-Jean Meyers @NailaJeanMeyers
There is a cliffhanger feel to this Federer-Tiafoe match since we don't really know the state of Roger's back.2017-8-30 01:14:25
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Tiafoe snapped Federer's 20-set winning streak at majors in the first.
Unforced errors were an issue for Federer early and throughout, as the tournament's official website noted he committed 56 to Tiafoe's 49. He was able to recover from the issues down the stretch with timely serves, and he finished with 17 aces—12 more than the American.
The five-time U.S. Open champion found his footing in the second with an early break to make it 3-1 and didn't look back. He broke Tiafoe's serve a second time to win the set 6-2, but he also appeared more comfortable with his serve after the early struggles:
US Open Tennis @usopen
⚡️ ace from @rogerfederer and the crowd is 🙌! #USOpen @MBUSA https://t.co/nSQ8nbZjRM2017-8-30 02:17:12
The floodgates opened some in the third after Federer broke in his first opportunity. He parlayed the momentum into a commanding 6-1 victory and appeared to be cruising to an opening-round win.
However, Tiafoe flipped the script with an early break in the fourth and then demonstrated Federer-like dominance the rest of the set with a 6-1 answer to force a decisive battle under the lights.
Writer Nick McCarvel set the scene:
Nick McCarvel @NickMcCarvel
A kid who started playing tennis at center where his dad was maintenance guy has Federer in a 5th in Ashe night match. I love tennis #USOpen2017-8-30 03:16:54
The veteran taught the youngster a pressure-packed lesson in the fifth and grabbed early momentum with a break and crisp service performances. It was quickly 4-1 in Federer's favor, and all the momentum Tiafoe built in the fourth set had disappeared.
Just as he had in the fourth set, Tiafoe battled back and notched a break to pull within 5-4, but he ultimately couldn't prevent Federer from breaking back to win the match.
Next up for Federer after the back-and-forth showdown is a second-round match against the winner of Blaz Kavcic and Mikhail Youzhny, who are both unseeded.