That swift rise in his stock has not come about by accident. In addition to his stream of success in the Challenger events, he boasts an 18-4 match record in the five Futures events he has contested, winning one title in that division and going through to two other finals. Tiafoe is heading indisputably in the right direction, and seems to have sizeable potential. But what struck me more than anything else during a telephone interview I had with Tiafoe on Monday was his lack of a swelled head or anything even approaching an inflated view of where he is or how much work it will take to realize his highest ambitions. He speaks quietly, earnestly yet forthrightly about his challenges and aspirations. He is understated yet very direct and realistic about his place in the game. He seems like an extraordinarily nice kid with the right set of values.
Tiafoe just established himself as the first teenager to advance to the quarterfinals or beyond in the first three Challenger events of his career. The last player to accomplish that remarkable feat was Nick Kyrgios two years ago. Whether he can make his presence known on the level of a Kyrgios over the next three years remains to be seen, but Tiafoe is apparently of the same ilk as the Australian in the way he approaches competition. The common denominator among the toughest competitors is their response to pressure, what they do when the stakes are high and the margins slim, how they negotiate victories after frequently being on the edge of defeat.
Including the qualifying matches he played in Sarasota, Tiafoe carved out no fewer than eight three set victories in his three Challenger tournaments. Surviving that many hard tests which went down to the wire was a testament to his character and durability. I asked Tiafoe how much confidence it gave him to prevail so often under stress.
“This year,” he replied in his low key, thoughtful manner, “I have really been rising to the occasion. I have been stepping up and playing ‘Big Boy’ tennis on the big points and that has been paying off. Out here on the tour if you are going to try to make shots on big points, you know that everyone is solid, so you have to take some risks. That is what I have been doing and it is paying off for me. I try to play every point tough and make matches pretty physical for my opponents. I have been breaking guys down and it seems to be going pretty good for me so far. I just want to keep it going.”
Asked if he could have ever envisioned when he set off for those three Challenger events that he would eventually secure the French Open wild card and simultaneously crack the top 300 in the world, Tiafoe answered, “After the Open last year I took the whole fall off because there was some other stuff going on. So my first tournament of the year I was just trying to get myself back and I wasn’t playing great at the start of this year. But I just kept working hard. I wasn’t worried about how I was playing but I just worried about playing better and getting my confidence back.”
The key in many ways to attaining the wild card was his showing in the first of the Har-Tru events in Sarasota. Tiafoe won three qualifying matches and twice rallied from a set down in those contests to gain a spot in the main draw, then secured two main draw, straight set wins for his quarterfinal slot. He could well have tasted defeat in his first qualifying encounter against Alex Kuznetsov, but he fought back for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 triumph that set the tone for everything he would do thereafter. What did winning matches like that do for his morale?
“It gave me great confidence. I was down a set and a break and then down 0-40 on my serve against Kuznetsov, and I wasn’t playing great. But I kept fighting. When you squeeze out some of those matches it gives you more confidence. Against Rhyne Williams [in the second qualifying round at Sarasota] I was down two match points and won. Winning like that just gives you a tremendous amount of confidence and belief. Playing qualies in Sarasota and getting all of those matches under my belt really helped me a lot throughout the last couple of weeks.”
By the time Tiafoe arrived for the last of the Challenger events in Tallahassee, close followers of the game knew he had a decent chance to get the wild card for Roland Garros. As he progressed through the draw there, he was moving ever closer toward that target. As is turned out, toppling fellow American Tennys Sandgren in the semifinals was the win that guaranteed the wild card for Tiafoe, but he was not preoccupied with that. His focus was almost entirely on trying to win that tournament.
He explains, “ I am the type of guy that when I step on the court, I want to be worried only about competing as hard as I can in each match to get a win. I wasn’t thinking about the wild card too much. I am still young and it was my last concern. Honestly, it hasn’t really hit me yet [about the wild card]. It probably won’t hit me until I am in the locker room [at Roland Garros] and seeing all of those pros competing at a Slam.”
The semifinal win over Sandgren in Tallahassee was a gratifying one for Tiafoe, who triumphed 1-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1). He recalls, “I just wanted to get to my first Challenger final and be in the championship match, to have the opportunity for that. Tennys is a great player and we both gave it our all. I am happy I came out on top in that one. I played an unbelievable breaker. I was serving big and I took it to him so I was able to get to the final.”
Tiafoe could have been content to simply reach the Tallahassee title round, but he did not feel that way at all. He was beaten in a heartbreaker by a formidable clay court player from Argentina named Facundo Arguello. Tiafoe rallied from 0-4 down in the final set to reach 4-4 before bowing gallantly 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4.
“That loss still hurt,” he says. “It really hurt. It was more than about winning the wild card. I really wanted to win the tournament. I was in the finals and up a set and a break and had game points to go up a set and 5-3, so that loss really hurt. Just because I had the wild card doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to give it my all in that match. I definitely did. I respected him and he battled hard and hit some big shots at some big moments. Congrats to him. But just because I got the wild card doesn’t mean I was going to go away in that final. That was a big match for both of us and he just played too good on the big points.”
Now Tiafoe wants to make the most of the opportunity to compete in his first main draw at a Grand Slam event. Speaking of how he will need to train with vigor for Roland Garros, he says, “I am definitely going to be hitting the gym more. I don’t want to be cramping in the fifth set. More fitness is definitely going to be needed. I will play Nice and a couple of warmup tournaments to get some red clay matches in before Paris, and I will see how it goes. I will train as hard as I can.”
Tiafoe will be the youngest American man in the main draw since Michael Chang won the tournament in 1989. Reminded of that fact, Tiafoe says, “That would be kind of crazy if I were to go there this year and win the French Open. I am just happy to be in the main draw of the French Open, but I am actually planning to hopefully have a good run there. I worked hard to get the wild card and I actually feel I deserve my spot there after these last couple of weeks.”
This is a young player who has known success for a long while. He reached No. 2 in the world in the ITF World Junior Rankings a year ago. He became the youngest ever Orange Bowl 18-and-under titlist in the 67 year history of that highly valued event in December of 2013, and went on to win the 2014 Easter Bowl junior event as well. Of those triumphs, Tiafoe says, “At the time it was an unbelievable accomplishment for me, especially at the Orange Bowl where I beat a ton of great players.”
And yet, he keeps it all in perspective now, recognizing that junior tennis is a wide world away from the professional game. As Tiafoe puts it, “I won the Orange Bowl and the Easter Bowl, and it was especially good to be the youngest ever to win the Orange Bowl. But at the end of the day, no one really cares. No pro is going to be like, ‘Wow, he won the Orange Bowl.’ They are just going to see me as a young kid who is talented that some guy has to beat to get to the next round. Once you step on the court in pro tennis, it is a whole different game. It is not the juniors.”
At the end of our enjoyable discussion, I found myself admiring Tiafoe for his quiet dignity, his refreshing candor, and his innate decency. My last question was about his goals for the rest of this year and beyond. He replied, “My goals are to end the year in the top 100. I am going to play some Challengers after the French Open and then come back to America and play a couple more Challengers on the hard courts in the States. Then I will really get ready for the U.S. Open Series with Atlanta, D.C., and then maybe Winston Salem. Then comes the U.S. Open. Those are my plans and hopefully at the end of the year it will all have gone well. All I can do is take it one tournament at a time.”
Those words are spoken like a wily veteran rather than a promising 17-year-old. This is a kid who values substance over style. I hope he succeeds in realizing many of his chief ambitions.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.