Twenty-year-old Frances Tiafoe came to Delray Beach as a wild card entry with a wild forehand. He left as the youngest American to win an ATP title since Andy Roddick got his back in 2002, and with an impressive pile of bodies in his wake. Taking down Juan Martin del Potro was the first omen of big things, but many are those who get one top-ten upset and then sputter out a day later. Tiafoe simply moved onto his contemporaries and kept winning.
In the quarterfinal it was 21-year-old Hyeon Chung, last month’s surprise Australian Open semifinalist who plies a steady, Djokovic-flavored baseline game. In the semifinal it was 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov, who surfed into the fourth-round of the U.S. Open with a net-happy, smooth style vaguely suggesting a lefty Federer. Both Chung and Shapo have entered he top 50, both have already enjoyed deep runs the majors, both boast games that look tour-ready, but neither has what Tiafoe now has: hardware.
“Being in a position to not only help myself but my family … it’s an unbelievable place to be,” Tiafoe said after winning the final, cheered on by his dad Frances Sr, who worked as a custodian at the tennis center in Maryland where Jr. concocted his unusual style against the practice walls. “It’s bigger than tennis.”
That final, against an injured Peter Gojowczyk was not the dramatic conclusion Tiafoe’s run might have deserved, given that the German playing on a bum left leg and lost 6-1, 6-4. But everything before that warrants rewatching—in particular the quarterfinal against Chung, where Tiafoe played what was by far the most controlled and devastating tennis I’d ever seen him play, winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, unfazed by the rain delay that pushed the last two games of their match to the next day. It’s not often that I’ll drop a hefty package of YouTube highlights in your lap with the promise that the whole thing’s worth your while; here’s one that is:
Fourteen aces (including four in the final game), routine rally balls turned into winners, drop shot finesse, athletic finishes at the net. Tiafoe appeared to be feeling every aspect of his game all at once, and Chung was an adversary sturdy and consistent enough to push him to those limits. Sometimes you could see all that skill compressed in a single point, as at 9:29 above: kick serve to the backhand, a heavy forehand weighed just right—not too much, not too little—polished off with the smoothest half-volley.
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That three-setter was the first of hopefully many, many career meetings between these two. Tiafoe’s 7-5, 6-4 win over Shapo was another first encounter, too, between two friends. All three are watchable in their own way, and each paired matchup promises pleasing contrasts of technique and personality, which is the stuff of nourishing rivalries. Today Frances Tiafoe hit No. 61 in the world, just under his career-high No. 60. As these three young dudes keep inching up the hierarchy, the game’s post-Big Four future begins to look a little less empty and dull.