First Ball In, 7/29: New Foe

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Sixteen-year-old Francis Tiafoe, who trains in nearby College Park, Md, won eight games in his ATP debut. (AP Photo)

Suddenly, tennis is getting younger by the week. We began July with 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios’s Wimbledon run, and spent the European clay swing that followed learning about Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric, both 17. Now, back in the States, we’re going younger still. Yesterday in Stanford, Naomi Osaka, a 16-year-old from Japan currently ranked No. 406, upset Sam Stosur. Later, in Washington, D.C., 17-year-old Jared Donaldson of Rhode Island won a set, while another 16-year-old, Francis Tiafoe, made a more-than-respectable showing in his (nationally televised) professional debut. Tiafoe, who trains in nearby College Park, Md, won eight games from Evgeny Donskoy. That’s not bad, considering that Tiafoe is ranked 1024 places behind him.

How did the kid look? I’ll start by saying that he could continue a noble tradition of young men learning the game while their fathers labored at local tennis centers. Pancho Segura’s and Ilie Nastase’s dads were both custodians at fancy clubs, the former’s in Ecuador, the latter’s in Romania. Both of the sons, who were surrounded by tennis from a young age—racquets, balls, nets, and equipment were all over the house—went on to develop unique games. Segura gave the world its first and greatest two-handed forehand. With Nastase, it seemed as if he hadn’t learned the sport so much as internalized it.

Tiafoe’s father, Francis, Sr., a native of Sierra Leone, was part of the construction crew that built the club where his son plays, College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center, and later became a maintenance man there. And Tiafoe, as anyone could see last night, also has a unique game. The question going forward, as it is with all prodigies, is whether he has the technique to translate that talent. Does he, in other words, have the right game?

I wouldn’t say it’s in place just yet. The first thing you notice is that Tiafoe’s serve seems to be robbing him of power. His left hand flaps back over his body, going in the opposite direction of the rest of his body, and he gets little leg or shoulder into the shot. That he can still hit a serve 127 m.p.h. may be the ultimate testament to his athleticism.

As for his forehand, Tiafoe and his coaches have worked to reconstruct the stroke, but it’s still whippy and unorthodox; at times he hits it while standing parallel to the baseline. Again, it didn’t stop him from drilling one 104 m.p.h. last night, but he also missed quite a few while running to his right—you would think that would be a shot he would own. On his forehand return, Tiafoe goes to the chip too often, but that should change with experience. He may have learned yesterday that it’s not going to fly in the pros.

Perhaps the best thing about Tiafoe is that, despite his speed and power, he isn’t a bomber or a grinder. He can do a lot of things with the ball—slices, drops, short angles—and create openings on court quickly from either side. Emotionally, he already exhibits a showman’s knack for juicing a home crowd, but he has also had problems with composure. In his loss at junior Wimbledon, I watched Tiafoe blast a ball into the sky and earn a point penalty. Obviously, it wasn’t his first offense that day. 

How do cut out the point penalties but keep the positive emotion? How do you develop technique that will make him consistent while still letting him do what comes naturally? How do you avoid the common flaw of U.S. men of this generation, which is an over-reliance on the bomb serve and power forehand? Tiafoe and his coaches have time to figure all of this out. But, considering that Zverev and Coric are already in the Top 200 at age 17, and Kyrgios has already beaten Nadal, they don’t have forever.


OOP Analysis

What followed Tiafoe? Apparently a loss by Madison Keys to Japan’s Kurumi Nara, but U.S. fans will never know how their countrywoman went out. It wasn’t televised or streamed, despite the fact that the Tennis Channel broadcast three men’s matches from the same court that day. WTA International events like D.C. are only required to stream matches from the quarterfinals on (thanks to @matthillsports for this information, of which I was not aware). In this case, it had the effect of making the women’s event look like it was being deliberately hidden from us. What would it cost for there to be more parity when it comes to televising and streaming ATP and WTA tournaments? 

And what would it cost for there to be more parity on center courts at these events? Today, four of five matches on D.C.’s main stadium are men’s, while Sloane Stephens vs. Christina McHale languishes on the third show court.

See the Order of Play for D.C. here, Stanford here, and Kitzbuhel here.

Jack Sock vs. Michael Berrer: With two straight semifinal appearances since his Wimbledon doubles win, Sock, at No. 60, is now the second-highest-ranked American.

Sloane Stephens vs. Christina McHale: It may not be seen by many, but Sloane will play her first match since hiring a new coach against a fellow American. 

Dominika Cibulkova vs. Garbine Muguruza: Last year’s Stanford champ vs. this year’s breakthrough player.

Ana Ivanovic vs. Sabine Lisicki: They’ve split two matches this year; like Stephens, Ivanovic will also be playing her first match since splitting with her coach.

Venus Williams vs. Paula Kania: The last time we saw Venus she was nearly beating the Wimbledon champ. If she wins this one, she’ll play Azarenka.

Alexander Zverev vs. Diego Schwartzman: One more look at the German teenager on clay.

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