Last year in March, during the Miami 1000 Masters, the ATP published a video of Frances Tiafoe. The American was placed as an 'undercover' ticket checker at the front gates, and his interaction with fans was recorded. For most of the part, not many could recognise the man who is now the country's third highest ranked player at 39. And you couldn't blame them.
Certainly, his name has been reverberating around the tennis world as this talented, hard-hitting, and fearless youngster who just a week earlier, beat his idol Juan Martin Del Potro enroute winning his first ever ATP title at Delray Beach.
He had the big guns to win, but not the mental capacity to get through enough matches and earn fame. After reaching the final at Estoril, he'd win no more than two matches at any other event for the rest of 2018.
This year started in the same vein: he flopped at the star-studded Hopman Cup and crashed out in the first round of the Sydney International.
He carried the same bag of tricks at the Australian Open, but this time he backed it up with intent.
In the first round, he got past India's Prajnesh Gunneswaran in three straight sets. Next came the impressive upsetting of the fifth seed Kevin Anderson in four, followed by a nail-biting five-setter against veteran Andreas Seppi to make it to the fourth round — his previous best at a major was the third round at Wimbledon last year.
On Sunday though, on his 21st birthday at the Melbourne Arena, he battled Grigor Dimitrov, the former world no 3 for three hours and 39 minutes to come up with a shocking, but well deserved, 7-5, 7-6(6), 6-7(1), 7-5 victory. This is the first time in his career that he reached as far as the quarter-final of a major, making him only the second American since Andy Roddick (2010) and Tennys Sandgren (2018) to reach this stage at the Australian Open.
An aggressive baseliner with an unusual forehand arm motion, he has been able to harness some of that power and talent this time around. He's kept himself disciplined enough to know when to go for the kill, when to play inside the lines and continue a rally, and more importantly, how to win.
“Kind of just mix it up, play smarter,” he explained after his win against Anderson, adding, “don't try to go for cannons. Try to serve a bunch of first serves. Don't give him looks at seconds so he can be on the front foot and kind of be unpredictable.”
"I've started feeling more comfortable finishing a match rather than just playing a good match," he added.
In the match-up against Dimitrov, he was playing another immensely talented player thwarted by inconsistency. The 27-year-old Bulgarian had won the 2017 ATP Tour Finals, but has failed to win a single tournament since. The World No 21, who has added Andre Agassi to his coaching staff, can be a handful, and had shown that form in his beating of Janko Tipsarevic, Pablo Cuevas and Thomas Fabbiano before setting up the tie with Tiafoe.
He raked up more aces (21-10), points (171-166), had a better first serve in percentage (74-67) and conceded fewer unforced errors (43-54) than the American. But it was Tiafoe's new-found composure at crucial junctures that made the difference. Such was the situation in the second set tie-breaker, with Dimitrov up 3-1, the Bulgarian had an easy shot at the net, but instead played a cross-court backhand straight at Tiafoe, who had given up on that point. The American duly got the ball back into an open court to win the point.
“It means the world. I worked my ass off, man. I told my parents 10 years ago that I was going to be a pro, I was going to do this, I was gonna change their life, my life. Now I'm in the quarters of a Slam, 21, I can't believe it,” an emotional Tiafoe said after scripting an emotional win.
After the match, he took off his shirt and walked into the Melbourne sunshine, flexing his biceps and yelling his lungs out. Then he sank to the blue court, head bowed. This was the moment he reached a first Grand Slam quarter-final. The moment he came of age.
"I told my parents ten years ago that I was gonna do this, I was gonna change their lives and my life. Now I'm in the quarters of a Slam...I can't believe it, man."
Take a bow, Frances Tiafoe.
Or just keep pounding that bicep...That works too.pic.twitter.com/Hi0Oc4Szbe
— SI Tennis (@SI_Tennis) January 20, 2019
His life story is one of tennis' endearing underdog tales that has been repeated often ever since he started coming up through the junior ranks. The son of immigrants who fled the civil war in Sierra Leone, much of Tiafoe's childhood was marred with financial struggle. But his tennis talent has been the ticket out of those testing times.
“The beginning of my career, I was playing for them, trying to do everything for my family. Obviously now I put them in a great place. Now I'm trying to do it for me," he said.
His composed and efficient performances are the reason he’s still standing. His reward is a last eight contest against Rafael Nadal, who is looking more ominous with each round.
“I can't do anything (against Nadal); he's going to run me like crazy,” said Tiafoe, adding. “But if I can play him in the quarter-finals of a Slam, at Rod Laver (Arena), that'll mean the world to me. He better get ready.”
So should Tiafoe, not just for Nadal, but for a world of celebrity.
Updated Date: Jan 21, 2019 09:32:25 IST