The US Open feels like the Fourth of July

About a decade ago, when rowdy teenagers Tommy Paul, Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe roamed the United States Tennis Association dormitories in Florida, they dreamed that days like Sunday at the US Open would eventually come.

Coco Gauff and Ben Shelton were barely 10 years old at the time and still contemplating the big role tennis would play in their childhood, although one was sure it would play a pretty big part.

Let’s take a look at Sunday’s US Open and these five players took center stage in the fourth round of what was looking like an all-day American tennis festival, a part of the tournament that mostly featured players for so long from the men’s Europe occupied the leading roles. Not on Sunday when the last Grand Slam tournament of the year was about serious business and the round of 16.

On the program were the colors red, white and blue from wall to wall; black and white and mixed race players; Players from wealthy families (Fritz), from more modest backgrounds (Shelton, Gauff, Paul) and one (Tiafoe) who started with almost nothing; Some players have years of touring experience and one was so raw (Shelton) that he needed a passport last year so he could leave the United States for the first time to play the Australian Open.

“We always believed that was going to happen,” said Martin Blackman, USTA’s general manager of player development, who has known all five players since their early years. “But you never know when.”

When Serena Williams, a majestic and pioneering figure in sport and culture for more than two decades, retired from professional tennis at this tournament last year, she left big questions about who could fill the huge void she left, particularly in America tennis . Within a few days, some pretty good leads came out. Gauff and Tiafoe – charismatic figures with bright eyes and big smiles who play with heart, skill and athleticism in equal measure – made it to the deep end of the 2022 tournament, the quarterfinals for Gauff and the semifinals for Tiafoe.

However, that was last year and there was no guarantee that she or any of her compatriots would reproduce the magic of some of those days. Sunday was a good average.

As Fritz watched the draw in the middle of last week, his gaze wandered to the neighborhood directly above where Shelton, Paul, and Tiafoe were huddled. Some big names were out and his people were still very much alive. Immediately he thought, “One of them will be in the semifinals,” and that was pretty cool.

Paul and Shelton got the action going in the opening game at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday noon. The stands filled up with each change, getting louder each time Shelton’s booming serve put big numbers on the radar.

Two adrenaline-pumping shots landed him at 149mph as he carved out a commanding two-set lead before Paul burst into life with the crowd gathering behind him. The stadium was nearly at its 23,000 capacity when its last forehander sailed wide. It wasn’t the result Paul wanted, but the match had its moments.

Early on, he looked at the video board and saw that he and his friends were on the list of Americans left in the tournament. He let that sink in, those dormitory names, names that popped up in the final rounds of junior national tournaments in his teenage years.

“We all grew up together,” Paul said shortly after the defeat. “Kind of cool.”

Every audience at a Grand Slam tournament stands up for the players of their home country. At the Australian Open, it was “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy, Oy Oy!” The chant is a constant refrain. French crowds break out and spontaneously play “La Marseillaise”. At Wimbledon, the Brits will be pushing a youngster they’ve never heard of with the same vigor as Andy Murray to sign him up.

The US Open crowd, reputedly the loudest and most indecent of them all, is doing its best to get across the finish line.

20-year-old Shelton hugged Paul at the net, wanting to hear what the loud screams of the biggest audience he’d ever played before would sound like. You can hardly blame him for that.

“Great atmosphere, I felt the love all day,” he said a few moments later on the pitch.

And it stayed that way as Gauff played against Caroline Wozniacki, a former world No. 1. Wozniacki is on the road to a comeback after having two children and has long been a crowd favorite in New York.

However, she had never played Gauff in a day that felt like a throwback to a few generations ago, back to the days when American men and women always held the promise of becoming and becoming the class of the sport biggest stars counted. This was part tennis match, part revival meeting, with more “Go Coco!” shouts. than anyone could count in a building where Gauff, who is only 19, hopes to make her home for the next decade.

A slight complication, welcome to the hometown crowd, ensued around 4pm when Tiafoe strutted into Louis Armstrong Stadium to play Australia’s Rinky Hijikata just as Gauff was finding her rhythm. Like a parent faced with a choice between their children, Blackman needed a plan.

“First with Coco, then over to Frances,” he said as he hurried down a hallway beneath the stadium.

Gauff also had a slight complication in the form of a wobble late in the second and early in the third set, which caused her to hit backhand after backhand into the center of the net. Wozniacki quickly took the lead and broke Gauff’s serve in the first game of the third set. But Gauff and her 20,000 friends didn’t want to last long, not on this day. With a lot of “C’mon!” through clenched teeth, she made it through the last six games and bulldozed her way back to the quarterfinals.

“There was a couple of chants, which was really nice,” Gauff later said. “The audience is not comparable to any of the other slams.”

She’s won two of the three US Open prep tournaments and despite losing sets in three of her first four singles games, she’s full of confidence.

“I’ve been in this position before,” said Gauff, a French Open finalist last year. “I can go further.”

Meanwhile, Tiafoe was over on Armstrong.

If Ashe is the great cathedral of American tennis, Armstrong is its party space, a 10,000-seat concrete box with an upper seating level that seems to hang almost directly over the court and a retractable roof that ensures the sound is evenly distributed upwards and below echoes when open. And nobody but Carlos Alcaraz these days knows how to throw a party like 25-year-old Tiafoe, who broke into the top 10 for the first time earlier this year.

The drunker and more spirited the fans, the better for him. He clenches his fists, shakes his racquet, and even wags his tongue every now and then after curling his forehand and jumping his two-handed backhand to do it the way he likes, with so many shouts of “Go Big Foe.” !” as he can snatch from them. This is how he’s long believed American tennis should be, and one of the reasons he’s Paul’s favorite player in the sport.

Next up for Tiafoe is Shelton, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“He’ll be after me and I’ll be after him,” he said. “I intend to be in the semifinals.”

Then it was Fritz’s turn, taking the place for Armstrong early in the evening and entering shortly after Tiafoe left the pitch against Dominic Stricker, 21, of Switzerland, one of the upsets of the tournament. Stricker needed to win three games in the qualifying tournament to get into the main draw, and in the second round he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas, a two-time Grand Slam singles finalist. He had already played 22 sets of tennis in New York, including two five-setters, before hitting his first ball against Fritz.

Much of the Tiafoe crowd poured down the stairs to the main plaza at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Thousands more waited below, ready to take their places, honey deuces, aperol spritzes, beer, poke bowls and fries in hand.

Three American headliners had already moved on, and about three hours later Fritz joined them with a straight-set win over Stricker to reach the Grand Slam singles quarterfinals for the second time in his career and for the first time since Wimbledon im year 2022.

“I’d rather go running than here,” said Fritz.

Madison Keys and Jessica Pegula were scheduled to face off in the fourth round on Monday, and Ohio and University of Texas’ Peyton Stearns was scheduled to face Marketa Vondrousova, this year’s Wimbledon champion. This home party continued.

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