There’s a pretty common narrative for tennis players, which has been blunted on the men’s side for a while because well, there’s been three guys stopping anyone else from taking the final step. The arc is supposed to be that a player shows up in his late teens or early 20s, flashes some serious game, makes some noise at one of the Grand Slams, and maybe upsets one of the top seeds to really announce his presence, but then gets lost in the wash for a bit. The rigors of the Tour, players getting a scouting report on them, their weaknesses picked apart relentlessly while their strengths are blunted. There’s a learning curve, you’ll hear John McEnroe say something about “learning what winning really looks like,” and one year they’ll show up with a record like 12-11 and you’ll think they’re boned forever. Then there’s sometimes a coaching change, or a change in fitness training maybe, a diet change, or some combination, and then that player pops up and breaks through to win a Grand Slam. You know this happens when McEnroe talks endlessly about their fitness and conditioning. That’s the green light.
That last part hasn’t really been available for…well, 15 years or so except for the odd alignment of the stars. But with Roger Federer in injury and age limbo for the past few years (and likely forever), and Novak Djokovic living up his own ass to the point that he hasn’t been able to compete in two of the four majors, it feels like that door is finally fully open.
American Francis Tiafoe has a game you can’t miss. A huge serve, a booming forehand, and speed around the court make him a fireworks factory at times. The idea of constructing a point to Tiafoe used to be as foreign as Sanskrit to you and me, as he could hit a winner off his forehand (and understated backhand sometimes) from anywhere on the court. Why settle for three singles when chicks dig the long ball, right? That doesn’t mean you should try that every match, and Tiafoe’s constant redlining usually would spill over to errors and over-ambition. The margin between booming winners and spraying unforced errors is paper thin. Tiafoe could also be had when he was dragged into the deep water of a fourth or fifth set.
There’s a sweet spot that only a few find, where they have as big of a game as Tiafoe, the half a gear they have to throttle back to keep everything under control for most of the point until the opportunity presents itself and then hit the gas. It’s a tricky balance, trying to keep their natural instincts of going BIG GUN at any point they can while waiting for when they should. To keep the baseball analogies going, it’s learning how to pitch instead of throw.
Tiafoe seems to have found it. Monday, he collected the biggest win of his career, taking out Rafael Nadal in the Round of 16 to advance to the quarters of the U.S. Open, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Tiafoe was able to take it to Nadal in a way few can, and was willing to run down every ball in the same way Nadal does. Facing Nadal usually means having to hit two or three winners to win just one point, and Tiafoe was happy to do so and actually looked the more energetic of the two come the fourth set. And Tiafoe’s forehand and serve are two of the rare weapons that can get past Nadal regularly.
It was not vintage Nadal, who is still figuring out what his body can and can’t do ever since his abdominal tear at Wimbledon. His serve wasn’t as heavy, unable to get his body into it as much, and Tiafoe pounced on Nadal’s second serve that was there to be hit. But a huge part of Nadal’s greatness for nearly 20 years has been his ability to gut out wins when he didn’t have the full arsenal, including his last win at Wimbledon when he got by Taylor Fritz with a tear in that gut. Even getting past a wounded Nadal is a test of one’s will, which Tiafoe passed with flying colors. And Tiafoe can actually serve better, only getting half of his first serves in. Though when you come up with 49 winners in four sets, you give yourself some leeway.
With Nadal and Medvedev now out, and Djokovic working on turning water into wine, the draw is as open as it’s been in a while. Tiafoe is just coming into his prime, and his game seems to be in the sweet spot. He won’t save American tennis on the men’s side or anything, but his highlight-reel skills and infectious personality certainly can get more eyes on the screen. He’ll see Andrey Rublev next, who has his own big game. Tiafoe’s talent has never been in question, it’s been about dedication and harnessing. For the first time in a while, Tiafoe and others have the chance to complete that normal arc this week in Queens.