A tennis player who is down a set and 0-3 against a huge-serving top-five seed at a Grand Slam is typically cooked. Frances Tiafoe is the most intriguing men’s American tennis prospect alive at the moment, but when staring down that deficit against South Africa’s Kevin Anderson he looked about as dead as any other unseeded young player would have been in that situation. It surely didn’t help that Anderson had beaten him three times last season. But then Frances started having a little fun. It paid off.
The last two seasons have been an entertaining, if uneven ride for Tiafoe. There was that breakout five-setter against a creaky Roger Federer in New York and his first title; his first top-ten win and that Wimbledon third-round. And today, on the cusp of his 21st birthday and despite that daunting deficit, there is his first top-ten win at a major. In his 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 second-round Australian Open victory, Tiafoe played like someone finding his legs on the tour and finding a comfort zone against even its best players. He was also a tireless highlight factory, which is what this blog is for, of course.
Against Kevin Anderson, the first order of business is figuring out how to make a dent in his serve. This is even harder than it sounds, as Anderson holds in 89 percent of his service games, good for sixth on tour. Tiafoe read it well, especially on the backhand side, and mixed up his return positioning too. He used his speed to pounce on the serves and force Anderson to play another ball. The American got 58 percent of Anderson’s serves back into play—way better than Anderson’s first-round victim, Adrian Mannarino, who managed just 49 percent—and eventually reaped the rewards, breaking four times across the last three sets.
But what was most distinctive about Tiafoe’s four-set comeback was the sheer variety on display. Variety is baked into his game at the most elemental level. His backhand is a jerky flat shovel that meets the ball a tick earlier than you’d expect; his forehand is a grand looping ordeal with a nasty kick. It’s always fun to watch a player with such divergent groundstrokes, if less fun to play against them—the opponent is confronted with a different ball from one moment to another. Each time the ball comes back over the net, it seems to have a new personality. It can be harder to establish a comfortable baseline rhythm when you’re handling such different types of spin and pace one moment to the next.
But the variety that matters most here is different. That would be Tiafoe’s almost playful shot selection. Down a set and a break against an opponent fully expected to win, Tiafoe began to play a little freer. It might have been the freedom of having nothing to lose or it might have been him belatedly finding a tack that works, but he started hitting his usual groundstrokes cleaner and, maybe more importantly, deviating from them at times to hit some funky off-speed shots. He seemed satisfied to see how the point played out, and not just willing but happy to improvise. For the American, this was a way of betting that his movement, which might be his biggest strength, might get him back into the fight.
A fleet 20-year-old moves more comfortably than the 32-year-old, 6-foot-8 Anderson, and so Tiafoe stood to benefit by stretching the points out and depriving Anderson of all the free points his power and serve usually earn him. As he mounted his comeback in the second set, Tiafoe started slicing balls into play with healthy margin for error, making Anderson run and toil. Take a look at his second to last shot here, a vicious down-the-line backhand slice that spins off the court, essentially exiling Anderson from the point. From there, Tiafoe could play it safe with a junky forehand slice and close down the net.
Sometimes the Tiafoe slice was so good as to win the point outright, like this drop shot that arrived cleverly disguised as an approach shot.
In this vein, Tiafoe’s most inventive idea was repeatedly luring Anderson, who had looked shaky from the front of the court, towards the net. He did this by hitting shallow slices that would land inside the service box, forcing Anderson to come in on Tiafoe’s terms. Given the repetition, this was unmistakably a tactic on Tiafoe’s part, and clean in the execution. Here’s a thorough but probably incomplete list of all the times Tiafoe set this trap. Even if you watch nothing else in this post, check out these four clips.
First, a slice that lands shallowly in the court; Anderson complies; Tiafoe bats a beautiful backhand that’s weighted just right, dipping down and dying right at Anderson’s feet:
Tiafoe could also use a shallow slice when he was approaching the net, confident that his superior movement would be enough for him to win a duel between both players at the front of the court.
By landing these slices so low and so shallow, he gave Anderson no choice but to approach off an awkward ball. Here, he easily passes him with a big forehand:
This point, so close to the finish line, was especially cheeky: Tiafoe lures Anderson in again, then hits a weird floaty slice down the line, once again assured in his own ability to chase down whatever difficult angle Anderson can muster. It’s almost a passing shot in two parts. By this point, he’s basically playing with his food.
All that was pretty remarkable, and not just because of how well Tiafoe executed it all. The execution was remarkable—I’m remarking on it right here—but the conceptual aspect was the difference. It was the work of a young player understanding his relative advantage and exploiting it to get back into a match that seemed all but over. It probably also helped that Anderson had to take a medical timeout after the third set to get his serving arm treated, but still, credit to Tiafoe for getting so creative. He hasn’t had much success against the tour’s absolute best to date, but if he can get weird, maybe he can win at this level, too.
He brought all the usual show-stopping stuff, too. If you’ve watched Frances Tiafoe before, you know the best moments come when he’s careening ahead at a full sprint. Here he demonstrates how to cancel out an excellent serve return with these flat slap shots: first backhand down the line, then, on the run, a forehand.
On the run again, the angle he manages on this passing shot is absurd.
It is gratifying to see Tiafoe fully inhabiting his talent, even if just for one match, but it’s also a relief. It’s been a bit since there was an American on the men’s side this electric and this visibly happy to be out there.