Frances Tiafoe says he is “flying high” right now after arguably the best month of his career – but just how high can he go?
The 24-year-old made his Grand Slam breakthrough at the US Open, beating Rafael Nadal on his way to the semi-finals, where he lost to Carlos Alcaraz in a tight five-setter. He then followed up with a couple of memorable wins at the Laver Cup – teaming up with Jack Sock to beat Roger Federer in the final match of his career before sealing a first victory for Team World in the event by overcoming Stefanos Tsitsipas.
This is a purple patch for Tiafoe, and one he is savouring.
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For several years he has been on the periphery of tennis' top echelon, flashing his potential every now and again, flirting with the top 30 and making a few deep runs at tournaments. But before reaching the last four at the US Open he had only made it past the third round of a major four times. That six of his nine wins over top-10 players have come in the last 16 months shows his progression and improvement.
“It’s been a crazy month. I’ve been getting a lot of attention as of late,” said Tiafoe ahead of this week’s Tokyo Open.
“I’m just trying to keep the main thing the main thing. I’m super curious to see where I can take this tennis thing. I’ve got a lot to give to the game. I think me doing well is great for the sport.”
It’s difficult to argue with that.
Like several of his peers, Tiafoe is more than just a tennis player.
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The son of parents who emigrated from Sierra Leone, he has a big game, a big smile and a big personality. Among his career priorities is inspiring black players to follow in his footsteps. "My goal is to help more black people play tennis, ultimately, and just to be a good role model," he said a few years ago.
When he lit up the US Open with his dynamic and hard-hitting tennis, he spoke again about doing it for the next generation.
"Every time I win, I just want to inspire a bunch of people to just know that anything is possible.
"At the end of the day, I love that because of Frances Tiafoe there is a lot of people of colour playing tennis. That's obviously a goal for me. That's why I'm out here trying pretty hard."
Right now, Tiafoe, Felix Auger-Aliassime, 22, and Gael Monfils, 36, are the only black players near the top of the men’s game. Tiafoe is closing on Auger-Aliassime, who is ranked No. 13 in the world, six players higher than the American. There’s an outside chance that Tiafoe could qualify for the season-ending ATP Finals, although that would require a very strong finish to the season given he is currently No. 22 in the standings.
For Tiafoe to be in the conversation again shows his improvement over the last few months. He appears more solid than before, more trusting in his weapons and skills, and hungrier to take the next step and challenge for the biggest prizes. Perhaps the latter comes down partly to seeing others stake their claim in a landscape that looks more open than it previously has.
“There's a bunch of guys playing great tennis,” Tiafoe said at the US Open when he referenced a new ‘Big 12’ rather than a ‘Big Three’.
“I think it's good. For sure, you'll probably have someone who probably will cement and be at the top. That's still kind of happening. We'll see who that person's going to be. It's cool to see a new era.”
Tiafoe looked impressive in his first match in Tokyo, dispatching Yasutaka Uchiyama in just one hour and 12 minutes, without dropping serve. He said afterwards he is "not really feeling any pressure" despite being more in the spotlight than ever.
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"Every day is different, guys may play well and they may beat you - you've got to live with it," he said.
"I'm flying high on confidence and I'm just staying with my process.
He added: “As far as the noise, obviously it comes with it. People are cheering you one day and the next you can be forgotten. That’s how individual sports go.”
Tiafoe is part of a strong group of American men, all around the same age and bidding to challenge for the biggest titles. Taylor Fritz, 24, leads the way in the rankings at world No. 11 ahead of Tiafoe (No. 19), Tommy Paul (No. 30), Maxime Cressy (No. 32) and Reilly Opelka (No. 37). Pushing them are the slightly younger generation of Jenson Brooksby, 21, Sebastian Korda, 22, and Brandon Nakashima, 21, who are all ranked in the 40s.
The glaring challenge for all of them is breaking into the very top of the game and regularly competing for Grand Slams and Masters titles. Fritz has moved up a notch by winning his first Masters title at Indian Wells and making the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, where he came so close to beating Rafael Nadal and making the semis.
Tiafoe too has taken big strides over the last few months and sounded determined for more success after his US Open run. But can he keep soaring and reach another level?
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