Interview: Frances Tiafoe, at the BNP Paribas Open

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Frances Tiafoe was in a situation he knew well—and possibly dreaded—in Indian Wells on Saturday.

Tiafoe was serving for the match against Sebastian Korda at 6-0, 5-4. He had been the better player for all but a couple of games, hitting four more winners and making 17 fewer errors than his opponent. He had reached match point three times on Korda’s serve in the previous game. Yet now Tiafoe stood break point down, one misfire away from being all even in the second set. The risky play he had tried on the point before, a huge second serve, had backfired when the ball landed five feet long for a double fault.

In the past, Tiafoe might have faltered in this moment. Faced with another second serve at break point, he might have lost confidence or grown anxious or tried a low-percentage play. He might have found himself having to start all over in a third set. But he didn’t let any of those things happen today. Instead, he played the percentages. He kicked his serve wide, moved to his left to get a forehand, and then hit a ball inside-out and deep that wrong-footed Korda and won him the point. A minute or so later, Tiafoe rifled a backhand up the line for the 6-0, 6-4 win.

Tiafoe will need to put it all together again in his next match, against an even better opponent, 12th-ranked Hubert Hurkacz.

Tiafoe will need to put it all together again in his next match, against an even better opponent, 12th-ranked Hubert Hurkacz.

Tiafoe likes to call himself a player-entertainer, and while this was a relatively quiet daytime crowd, he brought his usual showman’s touches. After hitting a running backhand pass winner, Tiafoe stopped a few feet in front of the stands and mock-glared into the crowd, looking for a reaction. After breaking serve, he gently did a raise-the-roof gesture. And when it was all over, he put his finger to his lips and flexed his muscles. Was that a message to those who have hyped Korda, his fellow American, for the past year or so? Tiafoe has watched as the 21-year-old has passed in the rankings—he’s No. 41 to Tiafoe’s No. 49, as of today—and may have heard Martina Navratilova says it’s just a matter of time before Korda wins a major title. Tiafoe may have wanted to remind people that, while he has been on the tour for significantly longer than Korda, he’s still just two years older at 23.

And he still, it seems, is learning how to win while he entertains. Tiafoe likes to be unpredictable, to go for broke or throw in drop shots when an opponent least expects it, to give the crowd something other a bunch of safe backhands down the middle of the court. Low percentage play is fun to watch, but, almost definition, it doesn’t produce consistent results. Today Tiafoe’s varied play—he would bring Korda forward on one point, and then attack the net himself on the next—disrupted his opponent’s rhythm. The smooth and solid ground game that Korda showed off for the first half of the year was nowhere to be found today. He made 30 errors to just 13 for Tiafoe, and couldn’t hang on to an early break in the second set.

While he has been on tour long enough to qualify for veteran status, Tiafoe may still be learning to blend all of his many talents into a cohesive, effective whole. Maybe the work with Wayne Ferreira, and the challenge from younger Americans like Korda and Jenson Brooksby, have brought a new sense of urgency to his career. Tiafoe will need to put it all together again in his next match, against an even better opponent, 12th-ranked Hubert Hurkacz.