In the overarching context of the tennis season, February has a habit of offering little in the way of interesting developments. Invariably the shortest on the calendar, it’s what I like to call the ‘cool-down’ month. The fires of excitement ignited by the year’s first major smoulder into embers; next, the Golden Swing and a modest bloc of European indoor hard court events commence to indifference from all but the most avid segments of the sport’s viewership. Although the Mexican Open has continued to draw a crowd and attract marquee names since its transposition from red clay to blue hard courts in 2014, tennis is unlikely to set a great number of pulses racing again until the double bill of Masters 1000 action at Indian Wells and Miami occupy the foreground.
This February, however, was a departure from the norm. Rather than pass uneventfully, the last four weeks have been teeming with talking points: Roger Federer’s felicitous descension on Rotterdam and triumphant return to the apex of the rankings; Stan Wawrinka’s abortive efforts to shake off injury-induced rust; the indecipherable skirmish between Ryan Harrison and Donald Young at the New York Open; Frances Tiafoe’s title-winning escapade in Delray beach. Upon the last of these topics, I will expand: For my money, Tiafoe’s exploits in Florida were the most notable of any player’s last month because they were the least expected and signify that the Marylander, ranked 61st, has arrived at an inflection point in his young career.
Tiafoe endured an ugly start to 2018. Four tournaments in January (I will include his December 31 first-round match at the Brisbane International in the count)—two each at Challenger and ATP level—yielded one victory and a 20% winning percentage. The Challenger matches Tiafoe came up short in were close-fought three-setters; in his ATP defeats, he didn’t get a sniff. Evidently perturbed by how things were going, Tiafoe took off the first week of February, returning to his home town of College Park after losing out to fellow American Mackenzie McDonald at the Dallas Challenger.
The break proved restorative. Whatever key ingredient was missing from Tiafoe’s game in January resurfaced in time for the New York Open, where the 20-year-old picked up his first tour-level win of 2018 against ATP debutant Sebastian Korda. Tiafoe showed his mettle by recovering from a shaky first set and adapting to one of the rare occasions he has been expected to show up a younger, uninitiated opponent during his time on the pro tour. In the last sixteen, Tiafoe faced Dudi Sela, a diminutive Israeli some 13 years his senior. Tiafoe needed another three sets to get past Sela and saved his best tennis for the decider, which he took 6-0.
What came next was Kevin Anderson, the veritable antipode of Sela. Standing at 6’8″, the South African serves from a tree and uses his gigantic wingspan to wallop groundstrokes at speeds almost as tremendous as those of his blistering first deliveries. Anderson is more dangerous a player now than he’s ever been, which can be put down to his new-found understanding of how to get the most out of his game. Tiafoe pushed Anderson hard—all the way to a third set—until the top seed’s superior offensive firepower told in the closing stages.
The following week, Tiafoe drew Matthew Ebden in the opening round of the Delray Beach Open. Ebden had ejected Tiafoe from Brisbane on the last day of 2017, which made the outcome of this most pedestrian of matchups a dash more uncertain than it otherwise might have been. Tiafoe won two of three 6-2 sets, resulting in a prime time clash with his boyhood idol, Juan Martin del Potro.
On his third attempt at toppling the Tower of Tandil, Tiafoe finally found a way to contain del Potro’s bludgeoning power. He won the first set in a tiebreak after recovering from a break deficit. The second set Tiafoe lost, but only after making his Argentine hero work for it. Deciding set performances don’t come more clutch than that which Tiafoe put up in this match. He soaked up successive waves of del Potro pressure, then went for the kill in the twelfth game. 7-6(6), 4-6, 7-5 it finished; Tiafoe served up 17 aces and nixed 14 of 16 break points, which equates to 88% of all he faced. Such numbers will see Tiafoe to victory over top players if he can replicate them often enough.
Contending his second ATP quarter-final in as many weeks, Tiafoe took on Hyeon Chung match tough and eager to go at least one further than he had the week before. Watching the first two sets, which were split between the two players, made it hard to pick a winner. My mind was made up in the third, which Tiafoe was ever so close to winning when rain halted play late last Friday (Feb 23) night. Resuming play the day after with the score poised at 7-5, 4-6, 3-5, Chung and Tiafoe held a service game each; for the latter, that was enough to send him into a semi-final meeting with Denis Shapovalov.
Tiafoe took to the court for the second time that Saturday with a clear game plan in mind: direct as much traffic as possible to the Shapovalov backhand. It’s a strategy that will reward its executor handsomely for the time being; Shapovalov’s post-US Open 2017 results have been the very definition of streaky, and that is partially due to the inconsistency of his single-hander. One break decided the first set and two—one of which Tiafoe handed back to Shapovalov—decided the second.
If Tiafoe’s 7-5, 6-4 win over the colourful Canuck teen was his most tactically mature of the week, his 6-1, 6-4 domination of Peter Gojowczyk was equally impressive in the efficiency department—though Gojowczyk’s ailing left thigh helped along the process considerably. Still, it was a job well done by Tiafoe who, in getting his hands on a first piece of ATP hardware at Delray Beach, made full use of the wildcard he took to enter the main draw.
Paradoxically, Tiafoe’s sparkling February form has left my mind reeling with more questions than answers. How high is Tiafoe’s talent ceiling and how far does he have to go before he reaches it (if he hasn’t already)? Is Tiafoe the best of a plentiful, yet limited young American bunch? Can he hope to beat the likes of del Potro, Chung, and Shapovalov over five sets at a slam?
That’s just for starters; there’s also lots to wonder about Tiafoe’s forehand which, technically speaking, is something of an oddity. The same can be said of his serve. Both shots have never worked more effectively for him than at present, but they still don’t look ‘clean’ in some respects. Tiafoe’s coach, former top 20 player Robby Ginepri, never possessed the smoothest-looking strokes himself, so maybe the hitches in those swings are here to stay. Regardless of how hard it is on the eyes, Tiafoe’s idiosyncratic style is working a treat.