Frances Tiafoe prepares for his Davis Cup trial by fire

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Court Report: United States vs. Croatia Davis Cup semifinal preview

There’s getting your feet wet, and then there’s taking a full-body plunge. It appears Frances Tiafoe is about to experience the latter.

In a year of firsts, the young American is about to go through a baptism by fire in Davis Cup, as he’s been chosen to play singles in the semifinals. After his teammate Steve Johnson takes on Borna Coric—a match Coric won in straight sets—Tiafoe will make his debut against Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion and current world No. 6 who has a 26-10 singles record in the competition. Playing a veteran on the road on a surface that you’re less than accustomed to—clay—is a difficult task for any player. Doing so with the added pressure of the finals being within reach only adds to the weight of the situation.

For nearly three decades, it appeared to have been an unspoken rule for the United States to introduce a player to the international team event in the earlier rounds, after one of the most notable upsets suffered by the 32-time champions.

In 1991, the U.S.—led by Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras—faced France for the title. While Agassi was a seasoned veteran in the competition by then, his teammate was making his Davis Cup debut. After Agassi staked the U.S. to a 1-0 lead after the first tie, Sampras took on Henri Leconte, who fed off the crowd and Sampras’ nerves to level the rubber. The U.S. dropped the doubles and Guy Forget wrapped up the contest with a four-set win over Sampras to clinch the title for the host nation.

The next generation of Americans, led by Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers, all established their footing in Davis Cup in situations with less pressure. In 2007, that patience and development was rewarded with a win over Russia in the final.

That’s the last time the U.S. reached the final, and this squad, led by Jim Courier—a three-time Davis Cup champion as a player—stands on the verge of the last championship under the tournament's current format. John Isner and Jack Sock, the top two Americans in the world rankings, were unable to play the tie, but Courier has had a deep pool of players to call upon, which includes the two who have reached clay-court finals this year: Johnson and Tiafoe.

Johnson won a memorable battle against Coric at the French Open last year, while Tiafoe will be facing Cilic for the first time. Tiafoe, who reached the final in Estoril during the spring clay-court season, possesses the athleticism and power to hit through a slow surface. What should also serve him well is his ability to shine under the spotlight against the game’s best—as evidenced by his going-the-distance battles against Isner, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro.

Tiafoe, the second-ranked player on the U.S. team, has earned his spot with a banner year. He’ll have the support of teammates like Mike Bryan, Ryan Harrison and Sam Querrey, who’ve seen nearly everything on the tour at this point. Going through the upcoming battle, win or lose, will only help with his development. It's a fact Courier is surely aware of, and it’s a bold move by the captain—and if it pays off, can lend new weight to throwing caution to the wind.  


This Weekend on Tennis Channel PLUS 

-Davis Cup Semifinals (Sep. 14-16): USA takes on Croatia, while Spain faces France
-Additionally, watch Davis Cup World Group Playoffs featuring Austria vs. Australia and Canada vs. Netherlands

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