Frances Tiafoe was stumped. Asked to recall the last time he went nearly five months between tournaments, Tiafoe drew a blank.
“That’s a good one,” he said. “I have no idea, man. A long time ago.”
A typical season for a pro on the ATP Tour can last up to 11 months. Even as a junior, the longest Tiafoe would have gone without a tournament was maybe a few weeks.
So when the ATP Tour resumed in August after a four-and-a-half month layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic, Tiafoe admitted, he wondered how he’d respond.
By Labor Day weekend at the U.S. Open, the Hyattsville, Maryland, native had his answer.
“It felt great,” Tiafoe recently said in a phone interview.
For the first time in his career, Tiafoe reached the fourth round in Flushing Meadows. Along the way, he earned his first career five-set win in a second-round triumph over Jordan Millman. He also cruised to a straight-sets win over Marton Fuscovics in Round 3 — a match he’d later describe as “one of the best” of his career.
“It was kind of just me tapping in,” he said. “That was my motto all week — just tap in. Don’t worry about playing great tennis; just worry about competing your [backside] off.”
“Making the second week of a Grand Slam and beating quality guys on the way to do it — that’s big for confidence.”
Now Tiafoe is hoping the confidence he gained at the U.S. Open can translate overseas, where the French Open is set to begin on Sunday. Tiafoe will face No. 30 Jan-Lennard Struff in the first round.
“I haven’t won that many matches in a row in a while,” he said, “so now I’m ready to go to Paris and try to do the same thing, if not more.”
Tiafoe, 22, badly needed the lift the U.S. Open provided. When the ATP season was suspended, Tiafoe’s game was in desperate need of a reset. Ranked as high as 29th in the world in February 2019, Tiafoe was down to 81st when the ATP paused in March. Only once in his first five ATP events in 2020 did Tiafoe advance past the first round.
“When the whole COVID thing first happened, I kind of needed the break,” he said. “I needed time to sit back and reflect. I had just hired a new coach; I was ranked 80-something.”
“Things weren’t going so well. So, it’s like ‘Why? Why is a player of your caliber playing like this? Are you giving everything to the game?’ So, I had time to reflect. But then I got COVID and it was like ‘Oh damn.’”
Tiafoe tested positive for the coronavirus during an exhibition in Atlanta over the Fourth of July weekend. Although his symptoms lasted only a few days, the virus kept him from training for four weeks.
“It was very difficult,” said Tiafoe, a product of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park. “I was feeling good and training hard and wanting to compete at a high level. But then you’re not able to do that, so you start stressing a bit and wondering, ‘Am I going to be ready for the Open? Am I going to be physically fit for the Open?’ A lot of things are racing through your head.”
The concerns, though, were put to rest soon after he returned to competition. While Tiafoe conceded the U.S. Open felt different without fans or the usual flavor and energy that make America’s Grand Slam unique, he developed a healthy swagger throughout the first week. He reminded himself of the type of player he could be and the type of player he strives to be on a more consistent basis.
“That’s the biggest thing for me right now. How do you bring that level into every week? Not a quarterfinal at the Australian Open followed by a bunch of early exits, or a quarterfinal in Miami followed by a bunch of early exits,” he said referring to his inconsistent 2019 performance.
“I’ve had a lot of quiet [weeks] and then big. Quiet and then big. To be among the best, you can’t play like that,” he said.
Tiafoe credits his new coach, former world No. 6 Wayne Ferreira, for instilling a belief and confidence and for strengthening his focus and drive.
The two began working together in early March, just before the season was suspended. Raising Tiafoe’s mental game has been among their priorities.
Despite the positive steps taken in New York, though, Tiafoe’s run at the U.S. Open ended with a harsh reminder that there’s still much work to be done. World No. 5 Daniil Medvedev blitzed Tiafoe 6-4, 6-1, 6-0 in a primetime showdown in Arthur Ashe Stadium, in which Tiafoe was limited to seven points in the final set.
The match raised a few red flags because, on the surface, Tiafoe wasn’t as engaged as he was in his first three matches. He also wasn’t nearly as competitive against Medvedev as he had been in their previous meeting — Medvedev beat Tiafoe in four tight sets at the 2020 Australian Open.
“You’re not going to play your A-game every day, but it’s about how you win matches when you’re not playing your best,” Tiafoe said. “When I played Medvedev, I tapped out mentally,” Tiafoe said. “He brought it at a super-high level and my response was poor. I took the easy way and I didn’t fully compete.”
The bitter manner in which an otherwise successful run in New York ended for Tiafoe should also provide plenty of fuel as he now heads to Europe for the remainder of the abbreviated 2020 campaign.
“You remember that,” he said of his straight-sets loss to Medvedev. “You got your [backside] handed to you, so how do you respond from that?
“These are the guys you want to beat, if you want to play at the highest level,” Tiafoe said. “But ultimately I take confidence from [the U.S. Open] because you look at the 10 days on the whole. If you would have told me that I’d make fourth round after not having played in five months going in there, I probably would have laughed. So, I’m happy with that, and let’s keep it going.”