Tiafoe falls short of 2017 goals, but proves he is ready for the show

As the curtain descends on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) 2017 season, it appears rising American star Frances Tiafoe has secured his spot among the top 100 players in the world.

The Hyattsville, MD., native was ranked No. 78 entering the final week. That’s quite an accomplishment for the 19-year-old Tiafoe, who turned pro just two years ago. But it is well short of his goal of finishing the year inside the Top 50.

And perhaps a bigger disappointment for the young standout was his inability to recover lost ground in the Race to Milan (Italy), site of the inaugural Emirates Next/Gen Finals, a year-end tournament for the world’s best 21-and-under players. Seven players already have made the cut for the $1.2 million tournament to be held Nov. 7-11. An eighth spot will go to the winner of an Italian qualifying competition.

Just a few months ago, Tiafoe seemed well on his way to attaining his 2017 goals. He reached an ATP World Tour high ranking of No. 60 on July 24. And, at No. 5 in the Next/Gen rankings, he seemed to have a lock on a spot in the year-end finals. But a string of first-round losses combined with strong surges by a couple of Next/Gen rivals upended Tiafoe’s standing.

Despite the setbacks, 2017 was a breakout year for Tiafoe in many respects, starting with his first Grand Slam victory at the Australian Open in January. Up to that point, Tiafoe had won just two ATP World Tour matches since turning pro in 2015. He began the year ranked No. 108 and a month later was inside the Top 100.

Tiafoe finishes 2017 with seven ATP Tour victories and 17 losses. That’s five more wins than he had when the season started. He also has more than doubled his career earnings by winning nearly half a million dollars this year.

Tiafoe had some memorable moments, the biggest undoubtedly being his scintillating performance against ATP World No. 2 Roger Federer on the second night of the U.S. Open at the end of August.

Following that match, Federer offered Tiafoe words of encouragement as they shook hands at the net for the second time this season. The first was after Federer defeated Tiafoe in straight sets at the Miami Open.

“You’re only getting better and better,” Tiafoe said Federer told him after the U.S. Open match. “Keep going, you’re going to have one hell of a future.”

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After cracking the Top 100 in February, Tiafoe climbed the rankings by working the ATP Challenger Circuit. He won back-to-back tournaments in Sarasota, Fla., and Aix en Provence, France, just before the start of the French Open.

But a first-round exit at Roland Garros in Paris was the start of a slump in which Tiafoe lost seven of eight matches. His only win was another Grand Slam victory that came at Wimbledon.

Tiafoe regained some momentum heading into the U.S. Open. He defeated Germany’s Alexander Zverev in the second round of the Western & Southern Open, a Masters 1000 event, in Cincinnati. It was his first win over a Top 10 player, as Zverev was ranked No. 7 at the time.

A couple of weeks later, Tiafoe set the tennis world abuzz when he took Federer to five sets on the grandest stage in tennis, Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., home of the U.S. Open. Tiafoe broke Federer who was serving for the match in the fifth set. But he was unable to manage the adrenalin rush and lost the match on his own serve in the next game.

That match had to be at the forefront of eight-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe’s mind when he chose Tiafoe to replace Argentine Juan Martin del Potro on the World Team for the first-ever Laver Cup, a team competition pitting six top players from Europe against six pros from the rest of the world.

Tiafoe squared off against Marin Cilic, then No. 7 in the world and the 2015 U.S. Open winner, in the opening match of the tournament held in Prague Sept. 24-27 and named in honor of Rod Laver, the only male to win all four Grand Slam titles in the same year twice. Tiafoe again earned praise in a valiant losing effort, 6-7, 6-7.

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During the match broadcast on Tennis Channel, the announcers more than once touted Tiafoe as a big-stage player, making several references to his stunning U.S. Open effort against Federer.

“He’s an amazing combination of speed and power,” Tennis Channel’s Leif Shiras said at one point.

But when the rankings came out the following week, Tiafoe had fallen to No. 92. Critics might argue he would have been better served playing in an official ATP tournament where he could have gained some much-needed ranking points.

I would have a hard time making a case for any budding talent – let alone Tiafoe — to pass up an opportunity to be on the same platform with some of the greatest players in the game, including Federer and Rafael Nadal among the veterans and Zverev and Australia’s Nick Kyrgios among the newcomers. Tiafoe was the only black player on the court.

Tiafoe rebounded at the Shanghai Open, winning a couple of qualifying matches and his first-round match against No. 38 Benoit Paire, and at the European Open in Antwerp, Belgium, where he won a first-round match. Those victories moved him back up to No. 76.

Perched in 9th place in the Next/Gen standings, Tiafoe needed to reach the semi-finals of the Swiss Indoors tournament last week in Basel, Switzerland, to qualify for Milan. Unfortunately, he found himself facing Federer in the first round. It was their third head-to-head this season, and the result was the same: Tiafoe was sent packing.

There is still a chance Tiafoe could make it to Milan as an alternate. It would be a flattering finish to an up-and-down season for the talented and likeable teenager with the big smile.

Growing in popularity, Tiafoe was a local highlight as a member of the Washington Kastles World Team Tennis squad this summer. He was among eight young players featured in the August issue of GQ Magazine as the future of American tennis.

Indeed, Tiafoe has proven he can hang with the best of them on the ATP tour. On opening day of last year’s U.S. Open, he was serving for the match against John Isner, the big-serving, top-ranked American, in the fifth set. He faltered and wound up losing the match in a tie-breaker.

Those are the kinds of matches he needs to start winning in 2018.

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