By John Delong, Winston-Salem Open
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Frances Tiafoe was scheduled to hit with fellow American teenager Taylor Fritz in preparation for this week’s Winston-Salem Open. But a funny thing happened on the way to a friendly practice session.
By the luck of the draw at Friday’s draw ceremony, the two were paired against each other in the first round, and so now they are set to meet in first-round action on Stadium Court Monday night.
It’ll be a battle of two of the ATP World Tour’s #NextGen promotional campaign, a pair of 18-year-olds who represent the hopes of the next generation of American tennis.
“It’s going to be a good match,” Tiafoe said Sunday after a workout at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex. “We’re going to go after each other, as we should, and it’s going to be good to watch. It’s two young guys, and a lot of people like to see that, so there should be a great crowd. We’re both going to battle our hearts out and really go after each other.”
Tiafoe won the hearts of Winston-Salem tennis fans a year ago when, as a 17-year-old, he advanced through qualifying and notched his first career win at the ATP World Tour level. Among his victims in qualifying were Ryan Harrison, and then he beat James Duckworth in the first round of the Main Draw before losing to Thomaz Bellucci in the second round.
The points helped him climb the ATP World Tour rankings, and he wound up climbing more than 900 spots during 2015 to finish the year ranked No. 180.
He has continued to climb up the rankings in 2016 and comes into the Winston-Salem Open at a career-high No. 123. He won his last tournament, a Challenger in Granby, Canada, and has reached the finals of three other Challengers this year – Lexington, Winnetka and Tallahassee. He was granted a wild card to come to Winston-Salem.
“For sure, my career is progressing the way I hoped,” Tiafoe said. “It’s been slowly but surely. At the beginning of the year I started at 180 and have moved up a little bit, and now I’m really finding my way. So now the goal is to crack the Top 100 and take that next step, getting into Grand Slams and getting into Tour events regularly. So I’m taking it step by step.
“I’m very happy with the way I’m playing right now. I’m definitely happy with the way my game’s going and I think this could be a really good week for me.”
Tiafoe came away with a 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 win over Fritz earlier this year in the first round at Indian Wells in their most recent confrontation. The pair played each other three times as juniors.
“We’ve played quite a bit and I’ve always got the better of him,” Tiafoe said. “Indian Wells was a tough match, definitely a big thing for both of us, the second-biggest tournament in the United States. I was glad to get that win. Obviously it’ll be a little different tomorrow. It’s been a while since we’ve played, so we’ll see.”
Interestingly, he uses Fritz as motivation. Fritz parlayed a trip to the finals at Memphis in February into a huge climb up the rankings, and he has played tour level events and Grand Slams ever since. Fritz is currently ranked a career-high No. 54.
“I think I’m close to having that one big tournament,” Tiafoe said. “You never know when that’s coming. You’ve got to do the work for it. Obviously Memphis showed he did the work for it, and now he’s at 54. That’s where I see myself soon. I’m just doing the work and hoping for that good week to come, too.”