Remember this kid? If you do at all, maybe it’s because you saw him last August, thriving in New York’s late summer humidity: dressed in all-black, whaling away with an unruly forehand, and placing his foot on the throat of every Federer acolyte—making them believe God might actually die in the first-round of the U.S. Open. Fed didn’t die, it turned out. (That would come much later, courtesy of Juan Martin del Potro.) But it was a supreme debut from Frances Tiafoe, a classic, frantic five-setter, and a sure way to get his country to remember his face.
Things have looked dimmer for the 20-year-old American since that burst into popular awareness. He has gone 4-6 in his tour level matches since then, including three straight first-round exits; he hadn’t beaten anyone in the top 50 besides dapper head case Benoit Paire. The last year has given me the vague impression that the poor kid was being constantly being fed to Juan Martin del Potro in an early round, week-in and week-out. In truth, last night was only the third career meeting between Tiafoe and his childhood idol, after Acapulco last year and a first-round rout at the Australian Open last month. But this time, in a second-round match at Delray Beach, Frances Tiafoe actually won: 7-6 (6), 4-6, 7-5. This was just his second-ever win over a top-10 opponent, and even bigger than the old biggest win of his career, over a worn-out Sascha Zverev.
Tiafoe first fell into a 1-4, 0-30 hole, crept back into that set to win in a tiebreak, played well through a tight second set, and finally broke Delpo’s serve to seal the match. His first serve held up throughout the upset: he landed his first-serve in 73 percent of the time (well over his season overage of 58 percent), and landed 17 aces, including four in one service game late in the third set. Watching Frances, though, is always a bit of a waiting game: you never know if that homespun forehand is going to fly six feet out or nestle itself right into the corner of the court like a well-aimed meteorite. That wondering accounts for the joy and mystery of following Tiafoe’s career: Which wrinkles in his unusual game will be straightened out, which will continue to hinder him, and which will just be embraced and refined until they are good and odd enough to just beat the opposition? Can you actually win like this, consistently? My hope is that the answer is yes.
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Sometimes that hope can be slightly frustrating, especially after a point where he does absolutely everything else right, only to send the last forehand sailing out beyond open court:
Tiafoe’s backhand, by contrast, looks like an reliable tool that he can shovel-push into the right spots. He frequently traded blows with a Delpo who’s finally getting comfortable driving backhand again, and found that his stroke was superior:
Here he is with a slightly unconventional backhand winner, as he comes off the ball a bit and lets the weather do some of the work:
In the short term, a slightly more defensive style might suit Tiafoe well. He is quick and covers the court with authority, and he is not—at least not yet—precise enough with his placement to justify taking the big risks he often wants to take, the bold cuts with dramatic results. On many of his best points he did well to shave some of the pace off, stay patient, and seize on his openings once Delpo’s movement began to slow.
Part of the pleasure of Tiafoe’s career will be seeing how well he adapts to this early feedback, and seeing how far he can take his idiosyncratic technique and extreme talents. Another part is simply this: There is hope, an interesting game to get behind. The future of American men’s tennis doesn’t have to look like a band of sulky MAGA types getting rolled by their hyper-talented neighbors to the north. Beyond all that, there’s Frances Tiafoe, too.