The last time Frances Tiafoe played a game at Arthur Ashe Stadium was last year under the lights of the 23,000 crowd who cheered with every point as he attempted to beat Carlos Alcaraz, eventual US Open champion and No. 1 , to overthrow . 1, in the semifinals.

Michelle Obama sat in the front row of the presidential box and urged him to continue within earshot. In the bottom bowl were NBA players, including Bradley Beal, then a star of Tiafoe’s beloved Washington Wizards, as well as a number of Tiafoe’s friends and family who were lucky enough to snag tickets to the biggest game an American has ever played at the US Open had played in years.

On Monday, Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland who has catapulted himself to another level of sports fame, experienced something very different at Ashe Stadium than a year ago. The opening day of the US Open is an opportunity for tennis fans, including those with a ticket to Ashe, to stroll the grounds in search of the up-and-coming talent or catch the close of a close four-hour match between mediocre pros at range.

The result can be a lifeless, half-empty atmosphere in the sport’s biggest stadium, especially in a largely one-sided win like Tiafoe’s 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 win over Learner Tien, a 17-year-old. The old Californian is likely to have better days at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the future. From Tiafoe’s point of view, that was good. The only thing that would have caused a stir was a game far closer than Tiafoe, the No. 10 seed and one of the tournament’s most popular players, would have liked.

And while there might not have been too much hustle and bustle in the big stadium, there was a lot going on in Tiafoe because he knows this US Open is very different from any he’s played before.

“A lot of new experiences today,” said Tiafoe, who was considered a favorite for the first time on Ashe, in his post-game press conference.

This dynamic has ramifications, both literal and figurative, that are good and potentially complicated, as they are filled with reminders of Tiafoe’s new status.

It was the first time his team had been allowed to sit in the favorite’s player box on the west side of the pitch, forcing Tiafoe to turn his head in a different direction to brace himself. As a favorite, he was introduced to the audience and entered the field after Tien. This meant he sat in the chair to the left of the chair umpire, rather than to the right, further from the entrance where the underdog traditionally goes.

Everywhere he looked he was reminded of who he is now, just as he had all week as he alternated between sponsored events — he has a shiny new Cadillac Escalade in his driveway — and other appearances. And then the tennis started.

“I’ve never played a match where I was supposed to win against Ashe,” he said.

How Tiafoe handles all of this will have a huge impact on how many wins he can pick up at the tournament every American is dying to win. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Andy Roddick clinching his only Grand Slam singles title ahead of the rise of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

The expectations are high.

“They should be,” said Martin Blackman, general manager of player development at the United States Tennis Association, who has known Tiafoe since he was in elementary school.

“That’s a lot,” said Ray Benton, the executive director of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where Tiafoe’s unlikely rise to tennis stardom began. Tiafoe’s father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, was a janitor in the early years of the JTCC, when tennis pros first noticed his young son’s adeptness at hitting a tennis ball against a wall.

Benton was at Tiafoe’s game on Monday and stayed in touch with him throughout the summer.

“He’s a little—” Benton paused, arms mimicking someone feeling the inevitable weight of expectations, the greatest of which are those Tiafoe has placed on herself. “In some ways he can only disappoint.”

Although Tiafoe’s season ended with victories in tournaments in Houston and Stuttgart, Germany, he fell short of his own goals in the most important events. He lost in the third round of the first three Grand Slam tournaments of the year.

He was downright disheartened after playing what was arguably his worst game of the year at Wimbledon with a three-set loss to Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov at Wimbledon, a surface he loves and would suit his aggressive and creative game.

At heart, Tiafoe, who burst onto the scene in 2019 when he reached the Australian Open quarter-finals and quickly climbed into the top 30, is a showman, an entertainer who loves to harness the energy of the audience. One of the challenges of his earliest years was figuring out how to most effectively do this.

A typical Tiafoe sequence occurred during a tight second set against Tien on Monday. When the score was 4-4, Tien got up, turned and hit a backhand over the head that looked like a sure winner. Chasing after him, Tiafoe threaded his shot, slipping it between the referee’s chair and the net post and setting it up for what seemed like a decisive break from Tien’s serve. He then stared into the crowd with his trademark emblem and urged fans to get loud. They did.

But then he lost his own serve through a series of careless mistakes – a forehand into the net and an overhead way – giving Tien a chance to level again in the set. Megan Moulton-Levy, a former pro gamer, general manager of player development at JTCC, and mentor to Tiafoe for years, opened up earlier this summer about her long conversations with Tiafoe about how she was able to crack the code to entertaining and harnessing his energy as a bigger and bigger one growing fan base without burning too much energy or losing focus.

“He’s such a social guy,” Moulton-Levy said in an interview earlier this month. “He’s got this big, beautiful personality, so he has to manage to turn it on and off over the course of a game. He has to figure out when and how to show it.”

Tiafoe spoke Monday after his victory over Tien about his quest for balance, deciding when to cheer on an audience that will no doubt be around him throughout this tournament, who are coming to Queens specifically to see him, and of when he should focus on the challenging task of winning best-of-five-set matches.

“I don’t want to outgas in the first set,” he said, noting that that would be important, especially as the tournament progressed and given the hype, excitement and interest of all these top names and countless others at The Tiafoe -Believers noticed what he hoped was another deep run.

“I need to keep winning to keep the interest alive,” he said.

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