By Giri Nathan
Often, if not always, it goes this way: Frances Tiafoe sees a top player across the net and all the wrinkles in his game smooth themselves out. It’s as if the threat of a clearly superior player relaxes him, then reveals him for who he is: a charmer who draws on the infinite energies of his fans, until he looks indefatigable on the baseline and unpassable at the net. Cat-and-mouse points are his comfort zone. He does all his best work on a dead sprint. He might also tour for weeks without finding a good win to hang some confidence on. But he’s been reliable for a big-stage performance every few months, from his nerve-racking five-set loss to Roger Federer at the 2017 US Open to his wee-hours five-set win over Andrey Rublev at this year’s Open. Between those two bookends the kid from Maryland hasn’t enjoyed the surge in rankings that his many well-wishing fans might’ve hoped. But he is winding down the season in style.
Tiafoe, who somewhat surprisingly had to play qualifying rounds in Vienna this week, got through two three-setters to enter the main draw, then was rewarded for his efforts by running headlong into top-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round. The Greek sped through the first set. At 3–4 in the second, his serve disintegrated. This is not hyperbole: He didn’t put a first serve into play across 10 points, and he wasn’t so hot on his second serves, either. Back-to-back double faults delivered Tiafoe a gift-wrapped break, and then the set. In the third set, Tsitsipas appeared to stabilize, opening up a 3–0 lead with some immaculate tennis, but Tiafoe again surged back, this time more a function of his own ridiculously good form than Tsitsipas’ struggles.
Tiafoe strung together five straight games, reclaiming the set with as pure a stretch of tennis as he’s produced all season, a coherent picture of the top 20 player he could become. When he’s focused, all the components of his game stitch together gorgeously. The great whirling forehand opens up the court; he explodes up to handle a short ball; the little shovel backhand zaps an approach shot down the line; the job is finished at net with light touch and heavy swagger. It’s kinetic and charismatic tennis. And the crowd, which is always in his palm, keeps him at it. “You’ve got little kids screaming ‘Big Foe’ and that’s what it’s about,” he said after his 3–6, 6–3, 6–4 victory. “It’s almost irrelevant who you’re playing.”
This marks Tiafoe’s first career win over a top 3 player, and his fourth win over a top 10 player since April. (He’d already beaten Tsitsipas at Wimbledon this year, proving himself a tricky matchup.) Even though the impenetrable pandemic rankings will have him stuck lower, he’s No. 33 in the points this season. His collaboration with coach Wayne Ferreira appears to be working out for him. With such idiosyncratic technique, it was always going to be a mystery how far Tiafoe could take his gifts, but the 23-year-old appears to be getting a little comfier. Now that the statement wins are starting to roll in, week-to-week steadiness is the new objective. As much as it pains me to say it, what Frances Tiafoe needs is more boring wins. It remains to be seen if he’s capable of boringness, but go out there and do your best, dude.
Above: Frances Tiafoe, happy in Vienna. (Getty)