Serendipity is the word that comes to mind when talking about Frances Tiafoe’s nascent career as a tennis player.
The 20-year-old American world No 39 picked up the yellow ball because it was the only thing to do as a kid. Son of a construction worker and a nurse from Sierra Leone, he grew up at the Junior Tennis Champions Centre in Washington and was inducted into the sport not by a coaching program or a parent, but by sheer circumstance.
Frances Senior was the maintenance man at the tennis complex and kept Tiafoe and his twin brother Franklin with him because his wife worked night shifts. It wasn’t the ideal start, and the kids weren’t always aware of the hardship.
But living at the tennis facility provided all the background in the sport that his family couldn’t afford. And his sheer potential did the rest.
The result: the youngster is considered one of the biggest hopes for men’s tennis in America.
On Wednesday, Tiafoe took his story a step further when he stunned fifth seed Kevin Anderson 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 to reach the third round of the Australian Open. Statistically, it is the biggest win of his young career. Of course, he thinks beating idol Juan Martin del Potro is bigger, but let’s agree to disagree on this, because in Melbourne, the youngster showed the maturity and match awareness of a veteran, with the shots and tactics to match.
It was a stunning performance, coming from a set and a break down to beat a two-time Slam runner-up. It was as impressive as his climb up the ranks in the last few years.
The 20-year-old has long since been on the verge of a breakthrough, a young American star who is touted for big things.
At 14, he was the top-ranked American in his age group. At 15, he won the Orange Bowl and from hand-me-downs, he was wearing sponsored tennis gear. He earned his first ATP tour singles title in 2018, beating del Potro and last year’s Australian Open semifinalist Hyeon Chung.
He almost made the second week of a Major, falling short in a tough five-setter against Karen Khachanov at Wimbledon last year. He was leading by two sets, before crumbling 4-6, 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-2, 6-1.
But in Melbourne, he kept his cool even as he was down 6-4, 3-0 at one point. But the way he shifted the momentum to finally beat Anderson is a template for all up and coming players.
Admittedly, the South African seed was struggling with an elbow injury. But he was matching the American, who he had beaten three times in the last year, in terms of winners. The youngster trumped it with a sizzling mix of groundstrokes and triumphant forays to the net, winning 21 out of 27 of those points.
“I was getting killed, man,” said Tiafoe, describing how he turned the match. “Yeah, I mean, just mixed it up. Kind of just mix it up, play smarter. 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.”
Mix it up, serve strong, keep it simple. Sounds like an effective plan, right? But it took a lot more confidence in his strong forehand and instincts to trump Anderson’s big serve. And when it came to instinct, the American was sensational.
Tiafoe was clever, serving wide and returning strong and slicing when needed. But the momentum shift was not merely physical, a lot of work had to be done mentally as well.
After a breakthrough season in 2018, he was on a slide heading into 2019. He was win-less at the Hopman Cup, in both singles and mixed doubles with Serena Williams and then lost to John Millman in the first round at Sydney International. In the opener in Melbourne against India’s Prajnesh Gunneswaran, he didn’t look particularly lethal either.
But against Anderson, in his own words, he “just went to a different place,” digging in and not letting go. When he finally clinched the match point, he roared and pointed to his bared bicep (before needing a ball kid’s help to detach his chain stuck in his shirt). It looked like a show of aggression from a soft-spoken, cheerful player. But it was an acknowledgment of strength it took, crossing the threshold he had failed to at Wimbledon before.
He next plays Andreas Seppi, a day before he turns 21, and has a great chance to give himself the perfect birthday gift – a trip to the second week of a Grand Slam. If he can continue to play with the power and intelligence he showed against Anderson, he could just make deep run in Australia.
From sleeping at a tennis facility to the big courts of a Grand Slam, Tiafoe’s potential has paved a path-breaking journey for him. It is now time for his performance to back it.