“Big Foe on the Come Up.” This was the phrase that Frances Tiafoe scrawled on the camera lens after his win over fellow 18-year-old American Taylor Fritz in Indian Wells on Friday. While the words were as unconventional as they were agrammatical, it didn’t take too much brain-racking to figure out what they meant. In case you couldn’t, though, Tiafoe helped explain a few minutes later in a Tennis Channel interview.

“I’m on the rise,” he said with a gap-toothed smile.

Based on this weekend’s evidence, Tiafoe’s message also appears to be appropriate. After a flurry of early attention from the media, as well as from Jay Z’s publicity agency, this Baltimore blaster had spent 2016 losing out to Fritz in the Next Great American sweepstakes. Tiafoe had won all three of their junior meetings, but as Indian Wells began he was ranked No. 177, while his friend and frequent practice partner had leaped all the way to No. 80 after reaching a tour final in Memphis. Attention-wise, was Tiafoe on the verge of being yesterday’s news before his 19th birthday?

That question has now been answered with a definitive no, and maybe that’s why he celebrated his three-set win over Fritz with such gusto. Tiafoe roared, shook his head, dropped his racquet, looked to the sky, and then, as NFL wide receivers like to do when they’ve made it to the end zone, pretended that he was having a bowl of soup. Afterward, though, a still-pleased but more measured Tiafoe said he had just been trying to treat it like any other match.

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“Obviously, it’s Indian Wells and you’re playing on the second-biggest court in tennis,” he told reporters, “but you just want to stay in between the lines and just go from point to point.”

For those of us who hadn’t seen Tiafoe play since last fall, his ability to “stay in between the lines” was what had improved most in his game. We knew about the eurptive ground strokes and the high-speed defense, but Tiafoe’s game looked more reined in and less funky this time around. Polishing still needs to be done, but his serve had lost one of its hitches, and his forehand take-back, while hardly a textbook stroke, wasn’t quite as loopily elaborate.

The parts, in general, fit together better. By the end, while there had been plenty of erratic play from both Tiafoe and Fritz, each had shown that the future of the American power-baseline game was in capably explosive hands. When it came to their feet, Tiafoe had the edge; on those slow Indian Wells courts, he seemed to be everywhere at once.

Two days later, David Goffin, a thoroughly polished pro ranked No. 18 in the world, found that out the hard way. For three full-throttle sets, Goffin tried to press the attack against his younger opponent, but struggled to find any openings. Goffin had to survive two match points before finally winning in a third-set tiebreaker. While Tiafoe faded at the very end, you couldn’t accuse him of caving; twice he fought back from a break down in the third set.

It was Tiafoe, despite being ranked 159 spots lower, who dictated the rallies. More important, he did it without resorting to all-or-nothing tennis. Tiafoe hit plenty of forcing shots, and he made his share of errors because of that, but they weren’t wild errors, and they didn’t come in bunches. As for his winners, they were impressive, even certifiably jaw-dropping at times, but they weren’t circus shots, either.

Despite that, Tiafoe had no trouble bringing the pro-American Indian Wells crowd to its feet. Like any self-respecting young football fan, he knows how to punctuate a winning shot by cupping his hand to his ear and calling for more noise, or by folding his arms, pursing his lips and nodding his head slowly while the audience goes berserk. Not unlike Venus Williams in her early years, Tiafoe walks slowly and lightly between points—it’s as if he’s just tapping the ground with his feet—before tearing all over the court once the rally starts. While Fritz should appeal to tennis classicists, Tiafoe should appeal to the casual fan drawn to dazzling athletic displays.

Can Tiafoe put some swag back into U.S. men’s tennis? The moment is ripe. The country’s Davis Cup team is fresh off a first-round win in Australia, and has the potential to go much deeper. John Isner and Jack Sock, the singles players on that team, are still in the Indian Wells draw, as are Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey. Jared Donaldson played fellow teenager Alexander Zverev tough in their first-round match. And on Sunday, 149th-ranked Bjorn Fratangelo stunned everyone by taking a set from Novak Djokovic.


Of course, Fratangelo is also a cautionary tale when it comes to U.S. tennis hopes. Five years ago he won the French Open boys’ title, yet before Friday he had never won an ATP match. That won’t be the case for Tiafoe or Fritz in five years, but they still have a long way to go before they convert raw power into consistent results.

Even as Fratangelo lost the last two sets to Djokovic, he fought well and played with spirit. Is some of Tiafoe’s boldness and grit wearing off on his countrymen? Believing you’re “on the come up,” after all, is half the battle.