SEABROOK – Following a four-set victory in the fourth round of the Australian Open on Jan. 20, Frances Tiafoe could not hold back his emotions.
Celebrating the victory over the tournament’s No. 20 seed Grigor Dimitrov (7-5, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5), Tiafoe rejoiced by taking off his shirt, flexing his arms before smacking them, and bleating out roars of excitement before falling to his knees. He was advancing to his first Grand Slam quarterfinals after winning on his 21st birthday.
“It means the world,” Tiafoe said during the post-match interview. “I worked my ass off, man. I told my parents 10 years ago I was going to be a pro and I was going to change their lives and my life, and now, I’m in the quarters of a Slam at 21 years old. I can’t believe it, man.”
Coming off a successful 2018 season, the Hyattsville native looked to continue his upward trajectory with a strong campaign in the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam major of the year.
Despite being unseeded, Tiafoe battled through the first four rounds, becoming the second American man to reach the quarterfinals since Andy Roddick in 2010.
Tiafoe arrived in Sydney ranked No. 30 in the ATP standings. He started the tournament strong, sweeping India’s Prajnesh Gunneswaran in the first round in straight sets on Jan. 14.
He quickly faced fifth-seeded Kevin Anderson and promptly lost the first set. The Maryland native would use his speed and athleticism to his advantage, chancing down balls and winning 78 percent of his net points. He defeated the South African in four sets (4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5), leading to his first of multiple no-shirtless celebrations.
“I lost to Kevin three times last year, and down a set and a break it looked like he was going to get it for the fourth time,” Tiafoe said. “But I just went to a different place; I dug insanely deep.”
Tiafoe edged Italian Andreas Seppi on Jan. 16 in a five-set battle before meeting Dimitrov in the Round of 16. He jumped out in a two-set lead despite Bulgarian’s early success with aces (8-3). Once again, it would be Tiafoe’s net points (63) advantage helped him earn his first Grand Slam quarterfinals berth.
Tiafoe’s tournament march led to the No.2 player in the world, Rafael Nadal. Despite moments where the Tiafoe used his speed and physicality to push the Spaniard, Nadal’s experience was enough to defeat the Maryland native in straight sets (6-3, 6-4, 6-2) on Jan. 22.
In the first set, four backhand errors by Tiafoe and three aces were enough for Nadal to get up in an early 3-0. The early advantage was too much for Tiafoe to overcome as Nadal finished off a 19-shot set-point with a forehand winner to win the first set.
Fatigue slowly crept in as Tiafoe removed his shirt and was heavy breathing, trying to relax, during a break in the first set. Even though he was winning his matches, Tiafoe’s path to the quarters was a slog.
Three of the four matches he played went over three sets and close to two hours each one. His victory over Anderson lasted a minute shy of three hours while against Dimitrov, it took over three and a half hours to finish the match.
Nadal battled back from two break-points to hit back-to-back winners to take the second set with relative ease.
In the final set, Nadal took advantage of nine unforced errors to book a place in his 30th career semifinal. Following the match, the Spaniard complemented Tiafoe’s quick play and strong forehand, which gave him problems throughout their encounter.
Despite the loss, Tiafoe remained positive, saying he hit his goal of “popping off in 2019” a little earlier than expected. However, the stresses of playing to help his family have slowly gone away, allowing him to play more freely. He purchased a home in Maryland for his mother in 2017 while his father spends time with him during his camps in Orlando.
Now, he is playing to establish his name in the tennis world and Tiafoe said he is ready for the challenge.
“If you know anything about me and the story of tennis, you know that I am obviously not the normal tennis story,” Tiafoe said. “The beginning of my career I was playing for them and trying to everything for my family and now, I have put them in a great place and I am trying to do it for me.”