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Star Attraction: Frances Tiafoe shows brilliant flashes through revelatory season
Those who know Tiafoe best believe that he can beat anyone in the world. More importantly, so does the magnetic American.
Published Oct 27, 2021
Last October, Frances Tiafoe defeated Andrey Rublev to reach the fourth round of the US Open. Today, in a Flushing Meadows rematch, Tiafoe repeated the result, this time in the quarterfinals. With the American now into his first Grand Slam semifinal, we're re-running our Tennis Magazine cover story on Tiafoe, from the Nov/Dec 2021 edition.
We'll have a report from Steve Tignor on the 2022 version of Tiafoe def. Rublev shortly; in the meantime, we hope you enjoy this deep dive into the rising star, one that has proven prescient.—Ed McGrogan
The 2020 US Open was about sound, because there was so little of it inside the practically empty USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The pandemic locked fans out of the grounds. Errant balls, normally coveted souvenirs, bounced aimlessly and loudly along the concrete alleys. The fans that were in attendance—players were allowed to bring a maximum of three guests—may as well have not cheered at all. When Dan Evans won a crucial point during his second-round match, he looked at those in his player box, clapping softly in approval, and yelled back, as loud as he could, “SAY SOMETHING!”
Then there was Frances Tiafoe, who still wasn’t used to the tranquil environment after four sets of his second-round match. At 2–2 in the fifth, John Millman struck a lob that Tiafoe, planted in the mid-court, opted to let drop behind him. When the yellow sphere landed on the white baseline, Tiafoe yelled in horror—“OH MY...”—and then stopped, realizing that he was speaking at two people sitting on a deserted bleacher.
Later, Tiafoe earned a break point. An explosive exchange of crosscourt forehands between two of the fittest players on tour ensued, with Millman finally blinking and sending a shot wide. But with no linespersons to signal that the ball landed out, and no true fans on Court 11 to erupt in applause, Tiafoe’s celebration of a well-earned break was awkwardly delayed.
“Obviously I’m a guy who kind of feeds off the crowd,” said Tiafoe later that day.
This past August, Tiafoe and thousands of fans returned to New York City for the 2021 US Open. It, too, was about sound. Let me rephrase that: SOUND. Because after a muted edition of the late-summer classic, you’d have thought concerts were being held inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, rather than tennis matches.
Frances is one of those guys where, when he walks into a room, he just lights it up. And when he has energy, he’s one of the best players in the world. Nick Monroe, Tiafoe's doubles partner at the US Open
One of those ear-splitting events featured Tiafoe, riding high in Grand Slam competition after two victories in Queens, and a third-round run earlier that summer at Wimbledon, which included a straight-set win over Stefanos Tsitsipas. But his next battle of the backhands came against another chart-topper: Andrey Rublev. Like a rock band at a live show, Tiafoe fed off the energy of the crowd—and vice versa—at Wimbledon and in Flushing Meadows. Few, though, have felt Tiafoe’s electricity on the court more intensely than his regular doubles partner, Nick Monroe.
“He feels like he can beat anyone in the world now, on a daily basis—not just a one-off thing,” said Monroe, hours before Tiafoe faced Rublev. “He just has extreme confidence right now.”
Dropping the first set did nothing to dissuade the underdog’s first-strike mentality or aggressive court positioning—the keys to upending the No. 5 seed, according to Monroe. Coming forward becomes harder to commit to after being passed at net and falling behind, but Tiafoe was resolute in his approach.
With Rublev serving at 3–2, a tough low volley winner from Tiafoe got the evening crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium buzzing. Tiafoe smiled, did a Steph Curryesque shimmy, and nodded in approval. At 4–4 in the third, one set apiece, Tiafoe took another return of serve early, rushed to net, and put away another volley winner to break Rublev. Then he speed-walked to his bench, arms stretched wide, as if he wanted to bring the joyous fans closer. The 23-year-old put his hand to his ear, asking for more.
It was late at night in Queens, but this party was just getting started.
“Frances is one of those guys where, when he walks into a room, he just lights it up,” said Monroe. “And when he has energy, he’s one of the best players in the world.”
An hour and 40 minutes later, at 2:14 in the morning, the fifth-latest match in US Open history ended in five sets. It was Tiafoe’s sixth career win over a Top 10 player, and his third at a Grand Slam tournament. Even so, Tiafoe has never cracked the ATP Top 25, and despite wins over the No. 3 seed at Wimbledon and the No. 5 seed at the US Open, Tiafoe entered October ranked just outside the Top 50.
Climbing the rankings will require even more of the consistency Monroe notes, but Tiafoe says he’s already experiencing the sport’s rewards.
“I feel like when I’m out there playing, it’s bigger than a tennis match, win or lose,” said Tiafoe, who would fall to Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round. “… Losing a tennis match is almost irrelevant sometimes, what the outcome is. I’m bouncing a ball going into the breaker, deuce or whatever in the third, and I have four kids saying, ‘Whatever happens, you’re my inspiration’—like, that’s what it’s about.
“You’re going to win tennis matches, you’re going to lose tennis matches. [But] that’s the shit that matters. That’s why I wake up every day and I go crazy, I do all that, because a little kid is going to remember that. Parents are paying their hard-earned money to put their kids in seats and watch it. I just want to put on a show.”
Before you confuse Tiafoe with Nick Kyrgios, consider the DMV native’s 2021 schedule: a nine-month odyssey from Florida to Australia to South America to Mexico and Miami to Europe and back home, and back to Europe again—including qualifying competition at Masters events in Madrid, Rome and Toronto, and a Challenger tournament on grass in Nottingham—through a multitude of ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions and considerations.
Then consider his work with coach Wayne Ferreira, a former world No. 6 known for his tireless work ethic and who has been lauded for, as the ATP’s website put it, “helping Tiafoe walk the line between fun and focus.”
And consider his fitness: Tiafoe is a sculpture who can hit world-class groundstrokes. Don’t interpret his post-triumph muscle flexes or six-pack show as bravado; Tiafoe is proud of the work he’s put into his body, and he should be.
Finally, consider his hashtags: there’s #bigfoeonthecomeup, of course, but there’s also #lovewhatyoudo, and he means it.
“Don’t get that twisted as I’m just out here trying to be an entertainer,” Tiafoe added in his parting US Open press conference.
He’s a very likeable, not-too-serious dude, but as soon as you start talking about work, if you will, he asks so many great questions. He really gets it. Rajeev Ram, Tiafoe's doubles partner at the Olympics
Like the great lead vocalists of our time, it’s Tiafoe’s striking blend of play and performance that makes him so captivating. There are American players on the ATP and WTA that have experienced more success at a younger age than Tiafoe, but it’s impossible to deny that he remains one of the most compelling pros of this young crop, with 2021 only boosting his stock.
Fans aren’t the only ones who have noticed. Rajeev Ram was friends with Tiafoe before this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, but it wasn’t until they partnered for Team USA that the 37-year-old doubles specialist appreciated the rising star’s total package.
“We had a really tough draw at the Olympics,” Ram says. “So I felt like we needed to use camaraderie and energy to the best of our abilities, and I thought we did that really well. I’d love to play with him again, to be honest.”
Before Ram and Tiafoe bowed out to eventual silver medalists Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig, they dismissed two of the most talented players in the world, Rublev and Karen Khachanov, in an ultra-tight, 6–7 (3), 7–6 (5), [12–10] first-rounder.
“I was really impressed with how well he reads the game,” Ram says of Tiafoe. “We had some discussions based around scouting and game-plan strategy. He’s a very likeable, not-too-serious dude, but as soon as you start talking about work, if you will, he asks so many great questions.
“He really gets it. More than any one shot or any one thing, his ability to process information and learn is going to allow him to be really successful.”
Does this sound like a player who has a career tour-level record well under .500 (92–114 as of October 1), with just one ATP title and one runner-up finish to his name? Like many, Ram is taking the long view on Tiafoe. His innate aptitude and talent, coupled with his sky-high energy and passion, makes him a prime buy-now candidate.
Back to Kyrgios for a moment. The Australian is routinely cited as a player tennis “needs” for his combination of personality and ability. There’s a caveat, though: Kyrgios doesn’t always bring those qualities to the court, and the sport has suffered the consequences. Well, Tiafoe does—and he might be an even better version of the “Kyrgios” fans and media love to talk about.
The motivated American boasts flashy forehands and irresistible showmanship, without the risk of going caustic. Kyrgios might even agree. Along with Monroe and Ram, Tiafoe teamed with Kyrgios in doubles in 2021, at his home tournament in Washington, D.C. The headliners won just one match, but got the most out of their time together.
“Just love seeing you have fun wit it bro, soo good for the game,” responded Tiafoe (@bigfoe1998) to a video Kyrgios posted of the two on Instagram. “Bro we built different.”
They’re also built different than each other. While Kyrgios’ future in tennis is in doubt, Tiafoe’s is exciting for many reasons. Tennis needs a player like Frances Tiafoe, and just as important, he needs it back.