“I did everything but win the match.”
That’s how rising American star Frances Tiafoe remembers his first-round loss to Roger Federer under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open last summer.
Tiafoe was up early and down late, such was the rollercoaster of momentum shifts. Then still a teenager, Tiafoe saved two match points against one of the greatest players to ever pick up a racquet before finally succumbing to the maestro, one of just four players to ever push Federer to five sets in the first round of a major.
Tiafoe was proud of the way he competed, the way he clawed back into a match against the 20-time Grand Slam men's singles champion that he was always second-favorite to win.
But then something else occurred to Tiafoe: If he wanted to avoid the biggest names in tennis on the first day of a Slam, he had to improve his ranking so he was one of those seeds.
The same thing happened five months later in Melbourne, where he drew world No. 10 Juan Martin del Potro in the first round, and then again this week in Paris, where he lost to 12th-seeded Sam Querrey in straight sets. In fact, in nine Grand Slam first-round matches, Tiafoe has faced a seeded player six times. He's lost all six matches.
Instead of becoming frustrated, though, Tiafoe is using it as a learning moment and an opportunity for growth.
“The last couple years, I’ve taken a lot of heartbreakers, a lot of tight matches,” Tiafoe said from Paris last week. “Now, finally, I’m getting over the hump and winning these matches. You start seeing the game a little different. Your confidence and the way you carry yourself is completely different. I think that’s huge for me, and I think that’s why when I play against anybody in the world, I got a chance.”
Tiafoe’s backstory is well documented. The son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, he and twin brother Franklin grew up at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., where his father worked as a maintenance man and lived.
Tiafoe took a keen interest in the players training at the center, and he started playing there at the age of four, eventually working with coach Misha Kouznetsov, who played a key role during his formative years.
He later transitioned to the USTA's player development center in Boca Raton, Fla., as a teenager and now spends time training at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, some two hours drive north.
Tiafoe broke into the Top 1,000 in February 2015 and was inside the Top 200 by the end of that calendar year. He debuted inside the Top 100 at No. 97 in January 2017 and reached a career-high No. 56 in April this year.
Today, Tiafoe’s coach Robby Ginepri is hesitant to say just how far his charge can go, but he acknowledged that avoiding seeds in the first round of majors is a big motivating factor for his continued growth.
“I hate putting numbers on players,” Ginepri said this week. “Athletes are their own worst critics; they don’t need any added pressure. But something he said after the Federer match last year was that he felt like he played really good tennis, and he hated having to draw Fed first round, so he has to get seeded in Grand Slams so that doesn’t happen again. Our goal at the beginning of the year was the Top 32, so that would at least open up a few rounds before you get one of the top dogs.”
Tiafoe’s season got off to somewhat of a slow start – he lost four of his first five matches – but he steadied the ship at the inaugural New York Open and has been on the ascent ever since.
After reaching the quarterfinals of the event on Long Island, Tiafoe won the Delray Beach Open, reached the fourth round of the Miami Open and contested the championship match of the Millennium Estoril Open on the clay of Estoril, Portugal.
Among those wins was a victory over del Potro in the second round of Delray Beach. In terms of ranking, the win over No. 10 del Potro was the second-biggest victory of his career behind only a victory against world No. 7 Alexander Zverev in Cincinnati last year. But Tiafoe did not grow up idolizing Zverev as he did del Potro.
Playing the champions you watched on TV as a kid is one thing. Beating them is something entirely different – and something Tiafoe has had to learn to process as he’s moved up the tennis ladder.
“On the tour, I respect everyone. I wouldn’t say I look up to anyone on the tour anymore,” said Tiafoe, who cites NBA superstar LeBron James and actor Will Smith as inspirations. “I look at them as competitors now. I think that was one of the problems when I first started. I was still looking up to guys in the locker room or staring guys down. I was like, ‘Ooooh, that’s Rafa [Nadal], that’s [Gael] Monfils.’ Now I think of them all as competitors.”
Part of that adjustment is the natural learning curve of a professional athlete. Sure, there’s the physical part – having the tools to compete – but there's also the mental part – realizing you’re good enough to beat players who were once just larger-than-life personalities.
Ginepri says both parts are slowly becoming second nature to Tiafoe, who only turned 20 in January and was still in elementary school when del Potro won the US Open in 2009.
“We have a saying: 'Respect all, fear none,'” Ginepri said. “Anyone’s capable of upsetting anyone out there; these guys are all so good. You have to give every player respect, but not too much respect, where you’re afraid to take them down. That’s something we’ve been talking about. Everyone deals with situations differently. He seems to rise to the occasion, the big match, the big stage.”
While the story of Tiafoe’s childhood defined his teenage years, he’s now looking to move forward. Still, that upbringing means he’s humble enough to both appreciate where he came from and recognize the opportunities in front of him.
“I probably would have laughed,” Tiafoe said of his younger self imagining his future success. “It’s crazy, crazy. I always told my mom, my father, that I’m going to put them in a situation that they’ll never believe. I told them that I’ll be playing the US Open, be Top 10 in the world. Tennis is bigger than myself. I’m not only playing for my family and myself, but I’m playing [for everyone] across the globe. When they watch me, they will say they want to be Frances Tiafoe when they grow up. I had a lot of great examples when I was coming through as a kid, so I just want to be an example for them.
“[I want] to be great. I looked up to the greats. Being great always motivates me. They can impact people in so many different ways. I want my voice to be heard. I want to give back to a ton of people and give advice to kids. That’s part of what motivates me – to be in a position where I can not only help myself and my family but the game. It’s bigger than just hitting forehands and backhands to me.”
But to get to where he wants to be, where he feels like he can impact the next generation of players, it’s working on the fundamentals of the game, the forehands and the backhands, that he is striving to perfect.
Ginepri says he is working with him on locating his serve and stringing together multiple points in a row. He’s pleased with the progress Tiafoe has made with both his transition game and his backhand slice, and he says that once he gains a little more consistency, the sky is the limit.
Once the physical parts of his game come together, then it’s just the mental side of his game.
“Just dealing with day-to-day menial tasks,” was how Ginepri described the next areas for growth, calling his mentee a "social butterfly" who wants to chat and be friendly with everyone. “It’s just getting him to stay a little bit more tunnel vision when he’s at the events.
“He’s been asking more questions about his game and situational stuff, patterns, and that’s good to see. You always want to push a player as far as you can on and off the court, but sometimes they’re not ready yet. But he’s grown as a person on and off the court, and the progress and the results are clicking now. There’s not one thing that helps someone be successful. It’s all the little things that add up.”
Once they add up, expect big things from the social butterfly with the thunderous groundstrokes.
“I’m making a pretty good name for myself now, and I feel confident enough when I play anyone that if I bring my best stuff, I have a chance,” said Tiafoe, who prefers calling himself a "character" or a "nice, loving guy." “I’m not telling you that if I play my best I will beat anyone in the world, but I definitely feel like I have a chance.
“If I end the year in the Top 30, I would count that as an extremely successful year. Inside the Top 50 would be great, but inside the Top 30 would be unbelievable. Higher than that, I would be on cloud nine. I’m trying to put in the work every day and be true to myself. If I could snag a couple more titles along the way, that would be cool. Winning is fun. Playing on Sundays is fun.”