There’s a fairly common narrative for tennis players that got jaded on the men’s side for a while because there were three guys that kept everyone else from making the final move. The arc is supposed to be for a player to show up in their late teens or early 20s, show serious play, make noise at one of the Grand Slams and maybe upset one of the top seeds to really announce their presence, but then a bit goes in lost in the laundry. The rigors of the Tour, players receiving a scouting report on them, their weaknesses are relentlessly picked apart while their strengths are dulled. There’s a learning curve, you’ll hear John McEnroe say something about “learning what winning really looks like” and a year from now they’ll show up with a record like 12-11 and you’ll think they’re boned forever. Then sometimes there’s a change of coach or maybe a change in fitness training, a change in diet or a combination of those and then this player shows up and breaks through to win a Grand Slam. You know this happens when McEnroe talks endlessly about her fitness and conditioning. That’s the green light.
That last part wasn’t actually available for… well, 15 years or so, aside from the weird alignment of the stars. But with Roger Federer in injury and old age for the last few years (and likely forever) and Novak Djokovic living his own ass to the point where he hasn’t been able to compete in two of the four Majors, it feels like this This door is finally fully open.
American Francis Tiafoe has a game you can’t miss. A huge serve, a booming forehand and speed on the court make it a fireworks factory at times. The idea of constructing a point to Tiafoe used to be as foreign to you and me as Sanskrit, since he could smack a forehand (and sometimes subtle backhand) winner from anywhere on the court. Why settle for three singles when chicks are digging the long ball, right? That doesn’t mean you should try that in every game, and Tiafoe’s constant redlining would usually lead to mistakes and over-ambition. The distance between booming winners and spraying unforced errors is razor-thin. Tiafoe was also up for grabs when dragged into the deep water of a fourth or fifth set.
There’s a sweet spot that few find, where they have as much play as Tiafoe, need to slow down halfway to keep everything under control most of the time until the opportunity presents itself, and then hit the gas. It’s a tricky balance trying to keep their natural instincts to go BIG GUN at every point while waiting to see when they should. To maintain the baseball analogies, instead of throwing, you learn how to throw.
Tiafoe seems to have found it. On Monday, he clinched the biggest win of his career by beating Rafael Nadal in the round of 16 to advance to the quarterfinals of the US Open 6-4 4-6 6-4 6-3. Tiafoe was able to bring it to Nadal in a way few can and was willing to run down every ball the same way Nadal does. Taking on Nadal usually means having to meet two or three winners to win just one point and Tiafoe was happy about that, actually looking the more energetic of the two in the fourth set. And Tiafoe’s forehand and serve are two of the rare weapons that can get past Nadal on a regular basis.
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.