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Frances Tiafoe enjoys prime Wimbledon cut with Stefanos Tsitsipas stunner
How Tiafoe used the grass to help him do what he does best and record his first Top 5 win over the Roland Garros runner-up.
Published Jun 28, 2021
WATCH: Frances Tiafoe chats with the press after his straight-set upset of Stefanos Tsitsipas at Wimbledon.
It was a tale of two players—one pumped up, the other flat as a pancake—from the very first point. Stefanos Tsitsipas began with a wide serve into France Tiafoe’s forehand, and Tiafoe laced a return so hard that it caught Tsitsipas by surprise and won him the point. The American bounded across the court, ready to do the same thing again while the Greek swung tentatively at his backhand and was broken. The match was only five minutes old, but the tone for Tiafoe’s 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 win was set.
In retrospect, the No. 3 seed tried to warn us that something like this might happen in his pre-tournament interview.
“Right now I don’t think I had enough matches,” said Tsitsipas, who hadn’t played a grass-court tune-up since losing in the Roland Garros final two weeks ago.
“I think for me, I’m a player that I rely a lot on playing matches, getting confident through the process of winning. I haven’t had that opportunity yet.”
It showed. Tsitsipas played passively and emotionlessly, with his eyes fixed on the grass in front of his feet. Worse, his backhand betrayed him from start to finish. If he wasn’t burying that shot in the bottom of the net, he was wrapping it around his frame and sailing it long.
But it takes two players to decide a match, and credit the 57th-ranked Tiafoe for seizing his chance to play on a show court and creating a winning dynamic right away. The American had never beaten a Top 5 player and was just 3-3 at Wimbledon. But he treated this tough draw as an opportunity, and played with the swagger and showmanship that Tsitsipas lacked.
“Once I saw the draw coming out, yeah, I mean, look, these are matches I actually love,” he said. “The minimum I want to do is at least give myself a chance to win. I did.”
I woke up this morning like, 'Yeah, I’m beating Stefanos.' It happened. I think believing it when nobody else does is so big.”
How did Tiafoe translate that belief into a result? He played with a controlled, intelligent aggression. He was 24 of 40 at net, and came in 11 more times than Tsitsipas, who is better known for his volleys. Instead of going for all-out baseline winners, Tiafoe hit hard, high-margin shots that backed Tsitsipas up and let him move forward. And he won the battle of the backhands; Tiafoe’s two-hander was more penetrating and consistent than Tsitsipas’s single-hander.
I woke up this morning like, 'Yeah, I’m beating Stefanos.' It happened. I think believing it when nobody else does is so big. Frances Tiafoe
While Tsitsipas was laboring his way to the Roland Garros final on clay two weeks ago, Tiafoe was winning his first grass-court title, at a Challenger in Nottingham. He says he feels likes the surface accentuates his strengths, and gives him no choice except to play the way he should play.
“It just helps my game,” he said. “It forces me to play the right way. It forces me to play super aggressive. It forces me to be off my front foot on both sides, it forces me to come to the net, because otherwise you’re vulnerable.”
It even makes Tiafoe wonder why he doesn’t play that way more often.
“I think these are things I’m good at. I don’t do it all the time. Do I know why? No. I think these are the kind of things I can use on all the surfaces.”
Whatever the surface, and however poorly his opponent was playing, Tiafoe still needed to close out a high seed today, something he has struggled with in the past. This time, when the nerves began to show in the third set, he had an answer—a first serve, a forehand winner, a quick net attack. Tiafoe saved all seven break points he faced.
Fittingly, the match ended with a Tsitsipas backhand that didn’t even reach the net. The Greek said that it took him two sets to shift from a clay-court mindset to a grass-court mindset. By the time he did, it was too late to stop Tiafoe.
“I just wasn’t able to adapt,” Tsitsipas said. “I wasn't able to figure these things out early in the match. Took me a while…You just cannot be defensive on grass. It takes away so much from your game.”
He admitted that “there have been times when I was much more motivated than this,” be he remains optimistic about his chances on this surface.
“I would like to pinpoint and say that I have all the qualities and the game to play on grass,” Tsitsipas said. “The transition from clay to grass, in my opinion, is probably the most difficult one, if not the biggest challenge in our sport.”
When it was over, Tiafoe showed off his biceps to the crowd and pretended to eat. He meant it literally.
“It’s like, you know, I’m out here trying to eat,” Tiafoe said. “Steak dinners aren’t going to pay for themselves, nice dinners aren’t going to pay for themselves. You got to perform and you got to win.”
As far as motivations go, being able to eat seems like an effective one. Let’s see how far it can take Tiafoe here. By the time it’s over, he may have a new favorite surface.