Frances Tiafoe’s smile is contagious. His friendliness lights up every room he steps in. On the court, the American’s athleticism and shotmaking abilities are undeniable.
But when the 22-year-old walks into Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday evening for his fourth-round US Open match against third seed Daniil Medvedev, another one of his assets will perhaps be more important: his confidence.
“When I’m playing the way I’m playing right now, I feel like I have a chance against anybody in the world,” Tiafoe said. “I felt that way for years. I’m starting to finally put it together again.”
Last January, Tiafoe broke through to reach the Australian Open quarter-finals. That helped him climb to a career-high World No. 29. Now No. 82, the American still has the same self-belief.
“For me it’s an absolute key for any player,” said Tiafoe’s coach, former World No. 6 Wayne Ferreira. “Confidence takes [players] so much further than if they didn’t have it. We’ve seen it with so many different players. The fact that he is very, very confident is great.”
Ferreira began working with Tiafoe just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States. The South African knew his charge was a confident person, but sensed he was “a little bit down” about recent results.
“Since I’ve been with him now the confidence is good, he’s starting to play well and it’s certainly going to help him. Going into a match against Medvedev, even though he’s lost to him before, he still thinks he has a chance to win,” Ferreira said. “Honestly, you don’t really have a chance to win unless you believe that you can. I think it’s going to help him a lot. Hopefully it will be good enough to make him win. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Another attribute Tiafoe will bring to the court is a high tennis IQ. Sometimes that gets lost in Tiafoe’s flashiness and general energy on the court. But according to Martin Blackman, the USTA’s General Manager, Player Development, Tiafoe has had that from a young age.
Blackman remembers when he was the director of tennis at Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland from 2004 through 2008. There was always a little boy with a smile on his face watching from just off the court as some of the oldest high-level juniors trained. The boy’s father, who immigrated from Sierra Leone, was a janitor at the facility. He would spend his free time hitting against a wall or seeking anyone who was willing to knock around a few balls.
That boy was Tiafoe.
“He almost always had a smile on his face and loved talking to people, but he also was very attentive in watching all the coaching that was going on at the JTCC. You can tell that he was really taking it in,” Blackman said. “The programme started at eight in the morning and it went until eight in the evening. In the afternoon after Frances had done his homework, if he wasn’t actively playing tennis, he liked to watch the coaching.”
Tiafoe was eight when the JTCC invited him into its Junior Champions Programme for which the minimum age was typically 10. He was always eager to learn and remains that way today.
“I have had discussions with him about lots of different things and so far he’s been open-minded to it,” Ferreira said. “I have no stories or issues of anything that I’ve told him that he’s said no to.”
Tiafoe might not like everything he has to do to improve his game, but he does it anyway. Ferreira believes a key area for the American is focus. He has made Tiafoe go for 30-minute runs on a treadmill with no focus or anybody around him to force him to concentrate.
“I’m a very loosey-goosey guy. He’s kind of getting me to dial it all in. [We’re] working and talking for hours on end trying to get me in uncomfortable positions and focus, things that I don’t want to do and focus. Do it to a high level,” Tiafoe said. “Running on a treadmill for 30 minutes with no music was horrible, looking at a wall, absolutely horrible. Hitting up the middle and cross-courts, 30 balls in a row, only counting my 30. If I miss, start again. Things that are so simple, but you miss a couple balls, you get [upset]… you don’t want to do it, but you’ve got to get it done.”
That has paid dividends during his career-best US Open run. Tiafoe has faced tough veterans in his first three matches: Andreas Seppi, John Millman and Marton Fucsovics. Against all of those players, he needed to maintain his focus. The 2018 Delray Beach champion’s best performance came in the third round against Fucsovics, who defeated him in their previous two ATP Head2Head meetings. Tiafoe won 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.
“Anybody who was able to watch the match against Fucsovics or Seppi, you really see the tactical execution where Frances used all of his tools. He used his slice, did a great job of varying his pace, height and spin to keep those guys uncomfortable,” Blackman said. “I think that’s something that will be on display tomorrow when he plays Medvedev. You’re going to see that tactical awareness and the tennis IQ.”
Tiafoe said that Medvedev is, “playing the best tennis of his life.” The Russian beat his younger opponent in four sets at this year’s Australian Open, so Tiafoe understands first-hand that reaching a second Grand Slam quarter-final won’t be easy. But those who know him believe he will not be defeated before the last ball is hit.
“He’s so driven and he’s got so much self-belief that when he goes on the court tomorrow he’s not going to be nervous, he’s not going to be intimidated,” Blackman said. “He’s going to embrace it.”