NEW YORK — The Frances Tiafoe that showed up for four rounds of the U.S. Open this week is a swashbuckling, roof-raising, charismatic superstar who can whip a crowd into a frenzy with a running cross-court forehand and a flex of his biceps.
For most of time on the ATP Tour, however, Tiafoe has not been that player. Instead, he’s spent a lot of time bouncing on the fringes of the top 50, struggling to sustain periods of momentum, making a run here or there.
The question now, as Tiafoe’s run to the round of 16 ended Sunday with a competitive four-set loss to No. 12 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, is whether that more promising version of himself can exist when he’s playing on an outer court at some random tournament in Europe and not just when he’s prodding 23,000 people at Arthur Ashe Stadium to scream their heads off for him.
“It feels nice to know I can play like this, good tennis, not just so sporadically but week in, week out,” Tiafoe said. “I just want to kind of keep it up and not be so up and down, kind of just be a little more consistent and just bring the tennis.”
Though Tiafoe is only 23 years old, he’s one of those players who has already been through the wringer of expectations and come out the other side as a forgotten man while the hype train moved on to the next group of promising youngsters.
When Tiafoe reached No. 2 in the world in juniors and became the youngest player ever to win the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament, he was targeted as the next great American hope. When he shot up the professional rankings in 2018, winning his first ATP title in Delray Beach, it looked like his path toward the top was set.
It hasn’t turned out that way. After pulling a couple big upsets to reach the 2019 Australian Open quarterfinals, Tiafoe’s results and his ranking started going in the wrong direction. In 2020 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he opened the year with three consecutive first-round losses and then started regularly losing to players outside the top 100. When the tour re-started last summer, he was down to No. 81 and pretty much off the radar.
“I got complacent, got pretty comfortable,” he admitted. “I thought I was just going to just keep going. It doesn’t work like that. Same work you did to get up there, the same work you need to keep going, keep working harder, so on and so forth.
“Now I’m on a rebuilding stage. I’m playing great tennis. I don’t think my ranking states anywhere near how I’m playing. On any given day I can beat anybody in the world. I know that.”
The results more recently back him up.
Since the grass season in Europe, Tiafoe has been playing what he says is arguably the best tennis of his life. He’s registered wins over Stefanos Tsitsipas at Wimbledon, Denis Shapovalov in Canada, Andy Murray in Winston-Salem and Andrey Rublev at this U.S. Open.
“I feel definitely more pumped up to play and ready to go,” he said. “I’m just in a good place. I’m just happy playing tennis out there. Happy you guys seeing what I can do out there and it’s just fun.”
Tiafoe could have had a little more fun had he been able to reach the quarterfinal here, but he didn’t have much to complain about after Auger-Aliassime took him out 4-6, 6-2, 7-6, 6-4. Tiafoe had a few opportunities to take control of the match, particularly in the third-set tiebreaker where Tiafoe had a set point. But Auger-Aliassime’s serve was so good in key moments, Tiafoe didn’t think there was much more he could do.
“Sometimes it’s like that, tennis is like that,” he said. “Usually honestly I like to say when I’m battling that hard, a lot of times I get over, but today he was just too good, and I have to be able to live with it.”
This version of Tiafoe is very good for the sport. The son of immigrants from Sierra Leone who picked up the sport because his father was the custodian at a tennis center in College Park, Maryland, he knows how inspirational his story is. And he knows how much the flash in his game resonates with young people and casual fans.
Now, it’s just a matter of putting that together with consistently good results like he’s had this summer and he can truly be a crossover star. Even though he’s out of this U.S. Open, it was a big step in the right direction.
“I feel like when I’m out there playing, I feel like it’s bigger than a tennis match, win or lose,” he said. “I almost cried walking off court. Not just even because I lost, it’s just the amount of love they showed me walking off the court. Losing a tennis match is almost irrelevant sometimes what the outcome is. I’m bouncing a ball going into the breaker, deuce or whatever in the third, and I have four kids saying, ‘Whatever happens, you’re my inspiration.’ That’s what it’s about.
“That’s why I wake up every day and I go crazy, I do all that, because a little kid is going to remember that. Parents are paying their hard-earned money to put their kids in seats and watch it. I just want to put on a show.
Don’t get that twisted as I’m just out here trying to be an entertainer. I want to win just as bad as the next person. I still generally want to win. I want to have fun and I want everybody in the crowd to enjoy those three hours, four hours, however long I’m out there as well.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Frances Tiafoe showed at US Open that he can be a huge tennis star