Frances Tiafoe is quickly making a habit of playing riveting five set, first round matches at the U.S Open. He pushed John Isner the distance in the first round of last year’s edition and yesterday, he did it again. This time, his ‘victim’ was none other than Roger Federer. Shocker. I do not believe anyone saw this close a contest, coming. I may even be stretching the truth if I thought Tiafoe would win a set, let alone two. But let’s just say this kid could have been good enough to win a set. To get two? We are talking about a completely different league here.
If you are reading this and wondering why I am making such a fuss about pushing Federer to five sets and eventually losing, I understand. I have a very valid explanation. Federer has not lost to an American tennis player since the 2001 edition of the U.S Open. That’s sixteen straight years without so much as a retirement, being outplayed, outlasted, outhit, being caught playing hurt or having such a bad day that his opponent takes advantage and wins. This is not to say Federer has not faced American players and been outplayed, outlasted, outhit, played hurt or had a bad day against them. He’s just never let them get past him with the win. Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish, John Isner, Sam Querrey, Donald Young, Noah Rubin, Frances Tiafoe. Since losing to Agassi in the fourth round of the 2001 U.S Open, Roger Federer has faced America’s best 34 times and come out victorious every single time. That’s just plain ridiculous. It is also the stark history Frances Tiafoe was up against last night. The way he played, you would be hard pressed to say he knew anything of it.
Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish, John Isner, Sam Querrey, Donald Young, Noah Rubin, Frances Tiafoe. Since losing to Agassi in the fourth round of the 2001 U.S Open, Roger Federer has faced America’s best 34 times and come out victorious every single time.
Federer started the match sluggishly. He played a loose first game and was immediately broken. In my article, “Introducing Frances Tiafoe”, I talked about the American’s speed around the court and his snappy follow through. I must add that he shows a very promising return game. The snappy follow through allows him take the ball early and I found myself giving a subtle nod of approval every time he took a step forward before hitting the return with his weight moving forward. It does not quite approach Agassarian levels yet… not yet. In time I have no doubt that it will. Point is, it was good enough to break Federer anytime the Swiss’s serving levels dropped. Tiafoe used his speed to track down some of Federer’s best-angled shots and he ripped his forehand with a measured level of abandon that struck an element of uncertainty into Federer’s already shaky game. I thought Federer would break back and level the first set, but credit Tiafoe for protecting his break lead and finishing off the first set with a confident inside in forehand winner.
However, Frances Tiafoe’s opponent was none other than Roger Federer. A record winner of nineteen grand slam titles and a battle hardened tour veteran who despite being at his best when he’s out in front, has had his fair share of comeback battles. Tonight was no different and as expected, Federer raised his game in the second and third sets. In the first set, his footwork had been sloppy – not a word generally used with Federer – and his backhand, praised for much of the year for its newfound lethality, was misfiring badly. In sets two and three, Federer seemed to find his range a bit and swung more freely through his shots. He and Tiafoe proceeded to entertain the tennis world to some furious rallies. Federer won most of them, but that was to be expected. What was surprising was how well Tiafoe stayed in step with Federer. He improvised with the slice, hugged the baseline and took the ball on the bounce and went on the offense, anytime Federer gave him anything short. Yet Federer maintained a level ahead of Tiafoe for two sets. By the time Federer took the third set, I thought this match was all but over. I’ll wager everyone thought so as well. It had been a good contest.
Frances Tiafoe had other ideas. With first round play just wrapping up, this year’s Open has already given us some memorable matches and shocking or depending on how you see it, not so shocking upsets. Simona Halep went down to Maria Sharapova in what you could confidently call a first round final. Johanna Konta – a player I picked to go deep – was taken out in the first round by Aleksandra Krunic and Angelique Kerber decided to invalidate my fourth round prediction by catching a flight out of NewYork after only one round. She was assassinated by Naomi Osaka. If Tiafoe was watching those matches, he probably was inspired to get in on the act as well. This would have been the mother of all upsets. Tiafoe got his game in gear just as Federer’s dipped once more, and he ran away with the fourth set, 6 games to 1. All of a sudden, the man who hadn’t been beaten in a grand slam all year, and hadn’t dropped a grand slam set since January, found himself on the verge of being ushered out of the U.S Open in the first round. This would have been as anticlimactic as it gets for Federer. Tiafoe was going into the fifth set with all the momentum and had managed to give the New York crowd enough confidence to cheer for him against their beloved adopted son.
I had thought all through the match that Frances Tiafoe was not playing like a man with nothing to lose. Rather, he was playing like a man with something to prove. It made him more dangerous but it also made him vulnerable. If you have something to prove, you essentially have given yourself something to lose.
An upset was brewing. Yet the tennis world expected their champion to rally. Federer had not played his best all night but here he was faced with a situation that defined champions. It was pressure time. Federer answered. He raised his game enough to break Tiafoe and serve for the match. Even though the American broke back – another impressive feat – Federer was not to be denied. He broke once more to clinch the match 6 -4 in the fifth. Upset averted and a long awaited clash with Rafael Nadal in NewYork still remains a possibility.
I had thought all through the match that Frances Tiafoe was not playing like a man with nothing to lose. Rather, he was playing like a man with something to prove. It made him more dangerous but it also made him vulnerable. If you have something to prove, you essentially have given yourself something to lose. Invariably, this will carry him further along in his career. At the end of the day, he left the court to a rousing ovation.
A man with something gained.
As Roger Federer moves on to the next round, the whispers are in the air. Is Roger Federer more vulnerable now than at any other time this year? I believe the answer is yes. He comes into the U.S Open with three losses but do not think for a second that the ATP locker room isn’t licking their chops to add a fourth loss. However, Federer fans need not worry too much. He might not be at his best right now, but if the Tiafoe match is anything to go by, they’ll have to go the distance to do it. He’s still a champion you know.