By John Delong
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (July 3, 2017) – The Winston-Salem Open will always be a special
tournament for Frances Tiafoe.
Two years ago as a 17-year- old, Tiafoe registered the first ATP level match win of his career
when he advanced through qualifying and then won his first-round match.
It has been a continual rise up the ATP World Tour rankings ever since, and now at age 19 Tiafoe finds himself easily inside the Top 100. Going into Wimbledon, he was ranked a career-high No. 63, and
was sixth in the Race to Milan standings to determine the participants for the #NextGen ATP Finals in November.
He has already won two Challenger events in 2017, and is now ranked high enough that he can concentrate almost solely on ATP tournaments.
The short-term goal is to make to into the Top 50 by the end of the year, and of course the long-term goal is to ultimately become a Top 10 player as many are predicting.
“This season has been really good,” Tiafoe said. “I think I’ve been playing some good tennis. It’s been showing. I played some really good tennis last year and really rose up in the standings, and I’ve just been working hard and building as a player, as a person, every day. I’m happy with the team around me and they’ve been pushing me, so I think I’m in a good situation right now.”
Brad Gilbert, who will return as a commentator for ESPN’s coverage of the Winston-Salem Open again this year, considers the 6-2, 170-pound Tiafoe to be the most-athletic of the rising young American hopefuls.
“Frances is a tremendous athlete, the best mover by far of any of the Americans,” Gilbert said. “He has done tremendously well on the Challenger circuit. His next thing is to have more success at the Tour level. But I think he’s got very good upside, just because of how well he moves.”
Tiafoe arrived at the WSO two years ago after winning the USTA Boys 18 national championship earlier in the summer. He was ranked No. 275 at the time.
He beat Patrick Daciek, Radu Albot and Ryan Harrison to advance through qualifying and make the 48-player Main Draw. Then came his monumental moment, when he pulled out a third-set tiebreak to beat James Duckworth 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 in the first round. He almost won again, but fell in a third-set tiebreak to Thomaz Bellucci in the second round.
The rise up the rankings started in earnest in 2016.
After reaching the finals of Challenger events in Tallahassee, Winnetka and Lexington but coming up short each time, he had a breakthrough and won a Challenger in Stockton in June. Then came another Challenger title in Granby, Canada in August.
He participated in the 2016 WSO, but fell to fellow #NextGen phenom Taylor Fritz 1-6, 4-6.
He would go on to crack the Top 100 for the first time in October of 2016.
Tiafoe opened 2017 by reaching the second round of the Australian Open, getting his first Grand Slam match win in the process. He also won his first-round match in Miami. Then came a brief return to the Challenger circuit, where he rose to the occasion and won back-to- back events in Sarasota and Aix En Provence.
“Hopefully it’s onwards and upwards now,” Tiafoe said. “I think I showed that I can play Challenger tennis at any time. I won, made finals a ton last year, so my focus now is mainly toward (ATP) events. Obviously you’re not going to come in and be winning tour matches right away. Some people do that, it’s great. Definitely takes time. Losing a couple is expected almost, but you just want to bounce back and try and win some.”
Actually, a couple of the losses stand out as part of the growing process.
He lost to Roger Federer in the second round at Miami, and played an outstanding match before losing a third-set tiebreak to Juan Martin del Potro in the first round at Acapulco.
“I took a lot out of those matches,” Tiafoe said. “Seeing what the top guys do, how they approach a match and play the big points. That helped me a lot. The del Potro one was a real heartbreaker, but it told me I can play some really good tennis.”
Tiafoe admits he likes being in the middle of the #NextGen movement and the Race to Milan. He says that competing against the likes of Fritz and other rising young Americans like Ernesto Escobedo, Jared Donaldson and Reilly Opelka is bringing out the best in him. They are all on the same mission.
“We’re definitely coming,” he said. “There’s a good really good crop of us, and we’re all working really hard and trying to get American tennis back to where it should be and where it has always been, and that’s at the top of the game. We’re all working our hardest, and soon we’re surely going to be there.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Winston-Salem Open has showcased great up-and- coming players throughout its history from Kei Nishikori to Grigor Dimitrov to Jack Sock to David Goffin. The trend is sure to continue this year with a large group of #NextGen players jockeying for position in the ATP World Tour’s Race to Milan. This is the third in a series featuring #NextGen players who could be on hand for the seventh-annual WSO Aug. 19-26.