MELBOURNE—Symmetry compelled. Second on today at Melbourne Park, a pair of young Americans sought to topple a pair of near-genius veterans and make their way to the third round of the 2019 Australian Open.
Immediately west of Rod Laver Arena, on Margaret Court Arena, 39th-ranked Frances Tiafoe, who will turn 21 on Sunday, went up against fifth-seeded Kevin Anderson. A few yards east of Laver, inside Melbourne Arena, world No. 81 Mackenzie McDonald took on the sixth seed and 2018 Australian Open runner-up, Marin Cilic.
View tennis strictly from a standpoint of outcomes and the gold star goes to Tiafoe, who earned the win of his life with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 victory.
“I’ve never felt something like that after winning a tennis match,” said Tiafoe. “These are the matches where they kind of define you and help you feel more and more comfortable to keep winning matches like that.”
The 23-year-old McDonald’s match also went four sets. But despite saving five set points to steal the second set, he ended up losing, 7-5, 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4.
Said McDonald, “I took it to him as much as I could.”
Dig beyond the scores and you’ll see exceptionally encouraging signs from each. In a sport where so many merely display proficiency at composition in the form of concussive groundstrokes, Tiafoe and McDonald today both revealed prowess for literature: a spectrum of skills.
Exhibit A came from Tiafoe. Serving at match point into the ad court, Tiafoe opted to serve and volley, only the third time all match he’d tried that tactic. The two previous efforts had failed; this one didn’t. Well aware that a justifiably cautious Anderson would hit his return high, Tiafoe rolled in an 86-M.P.H. kick serve that elicited a simple forehand volley that Tiafoe tapped into the court for a winner.
“I’m only 16, but I’m like 35 in tennis years,” Tiafoe told Washington Post reporter Liz Clarke back in 2014. “I’ve been on a tennis court all my life.”
Always on the fast track, winner of the Orange Bowl at age 15, two years later Tiafoe announced he was a pro.
McDonald, raised just outside of San Francisco, enjoyed an excellent junior career, aided significantly in his teens by work with former top tenner Wayne Ferreira. But though such results as a semifinal appearance at the 2012 Australian Open boys’ event were encouraging, it was virtually a certainty McDonald would attend college. In 2016, at the end of his third year at UCLA, McDonald won the NCAA singles and doubles titles and shortly after commenced his pro career.
In Delray Beach last year, Tiafoe earned his first ATP tour singles title, the run highlighted by wins over Juan Martin del Potro and 2018 Australian Open semifinalist Hyeon Chung. McDonald’s major moment of the last 12 months came at Wimbledon, when he reached the round of 16.
But even when faced with those youthful achievements, a far greater array of numbers related to experience and accomplishments could lead one to think that Anderson and Cilic had little to worry about versus these youngsters. Anderson and Cilic are each exemplary pros. Diligent, fit, devoted to improvement, these two have both worked extremely hard to earn their spots in the Top 10. Their ancestors include sturdy craftsmen Marty Riessen, Brian Gottfried, Tim Mayotte and Todd Martin.
Players of this level have such solid strokes that they are usually able to dispatch those ranked lower and frequently press those just up the ladder. Recall that Cilic here last year took out Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and extended Roger Federer to five sets in the finals. Anderson’s most recent big moment came at Wimbledon, when he fought back from two sets to love down to beat Federer in the quarters and defeated John Isner 26-24 in the fifth in the semis before succumbing to Novak Djokovic.
But they are not super-geniuses. Little has come easy for Anderson and Cilic. Having earned their way to significance, each is deeply rational, patterned, predictable—a trio of attributes which can occasionally prove counterproductive. If exceptional proficiency makes them difficult to beat, it also leaves them easy to study and less-equipped for adjustment.
Tiafoe proved masterful at coaxing Anderson into uncomfortable spots. Even when down a set and 3-1, Tiafoe remained calm.
“I was getting killed, man,” said Tiafoe. “Yeah, I mean, just mix it up. Kind of just mix it up, play smarter. Don't try to go for cannons. Try to serve a bunch of first serves. Don't give him looks at seconds so he can be on the front foot and kind of be unpredictable.”
Adept at slicing off both sides—rare in today’s tennis—Tiafoe’s intermittent underspin proved awkward for the lanky South African. Shaken out of his comfortable contact point, Anderson frequently snatched at backhands and, even more, was unable to assert himself proficiently enough with his occasionally shaky forehand.
Firepower also surfaced, such as when Tiafoe served for the third set at 5-4, 40-15. He sliced his delivery wide and then drove an inside-out backhand behind Anderson for one of his 47 winners (to just 27 unforced errors).
Anderson’s woes were also compounded by Tiafoe’s first-rate foot speed. This was a web well-woven, much less a showcase of raw power and more one of exquisite guile. Add in Tiafoe’s tenacity and here he is, in the third round of a major for the second time in his career. Surely, it won’t be the last.
Though less fortunate, McDonald also demonstrated his own penchant for problem-solving, including moments of sheer persistence—he was down 4-0 in the second-set tiebreaker—and tactical eclecticism, be it by taking balls on the rise (an early backhand captured the second set) or forays into the net (44 times).
A year ago here, McDonald had extended Grigor Dimitrov to a fifth set, losing that match 8-6. Twelve months later, McDonald believes he’s a much better player—stronger, faster and more comfortable, with those high-profile moments that are far removed from the austere Challenger events McDonald has frequently competed at.
“Last year was the first time I’d stepped on a stage for something like that,” said McDonald. “This year, I stepped out on the stage way more prepared.”
Tiafoe next plays 34-year-old Andreas Seppi, yet another enduring veteran who beat Roger Federer here in 2015.
“Seppi is a great player,” said Tiafoe. “I mean, been around for forever. I mean, pretty solid from both sides. A ton of long rallies. Definitely going to make me beat him. He's not going to beat himself. It's going to be a good match.”
One awaits what Tiafoe has in store this time.
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