MELBOURNE, Australia — Let’s start with the outfit, that abstract-art-meets-silk-summer-pajamas-meets-Nike-tennis get-up that Frances Tiafoe is wearing at the Australian Open.
“They just told me it’s going to be outgoing and sleeveless, and I was like, ‘cool,’” Tiafoe said earlier this week after winning his first match in a rather nontraditional tennis kit. “And a lot of colors and mixing action. They were like, if anyone can pull this off, it’s me, so I was like, ‘Cool, let’s do it.’”
There are also the Calvin Klein underwear shots. And there is his evolution into the de facto alpha dog of American tennis even if several players are ranked higher and have lasted longer or even won major tournaments. That became especially apparent earlier this month when he helped lead the United States to victory in the inaugural United Cup, a rare mixed team event.
“You locked?” he would ask his teammates before every match in that competition. Now it’s their catch phrase, the word they say to each other as they prowl the hallways and plazas at Melbourne Park before their matches and lead a wave of American success that seems to grow with each Grand Slam.
In the months after the U.S. Open, Tiafoe bumped fists with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, and hobnobbed with the top names in fashion. His new agents at IMG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate that signs only athletes it views as potential marketing juggernauts, have helped with that, but mostly it’s because of a few magical hours back in September at the U.S. Open.
“That day definitely changed my life,” Tiafoe said Wednesday, after plowing into the third round with a straight sets win over Shang Juncheng, a 17-year-old Chinese whiz kid with a seemingly sparkling future.
“That day” was Sept. 5, when Tiafoe upset Rafael Nadal at the U.S. Open, becoming the first American man to beat Nadal in a Grand Slam in nearly two decades. Four days later, with the former first lady Michelle Obama, a roster of A-list celebrities and more than 20,000 fans screaming for him in Arthur Ashe Stadium, he lost a five-set thriller to Carlos Alcaraz, the eventual champion and world No. 1.
Nothing has been the same since for the man known as “Big Foe,” who is seeded 16th in this tournament.
“You come so close to doing something so special, and to see everything that happened after that,” Tiafoe said Wednesday. “I want more of those moments and better.”
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
- Taylor Townsend: A decade ago, she had to contend with the body-shaming of tennis leaders in the United States. Now, she’s determined to play the best tennis of her career.
- Caroline Garcia: The top player has spoken openly about her struggles with an eating disorder. At the Australian Open she is chasing her first Grand Slam singles title.
- Talent From China: Shang Juncheng, once the world’s top-ranked junior, is the youngest member of a promising new wave of players that also includes Wu Yibing and Zhang Zhizhen.
- Ben Shelton Goes Global: The 20-year-old American is ranked in the top 100 after a late-season surge last year. Now, he is embarking on his first full season on tour.
Tiafoe, who plays Karen Khachanov of Russia, on his 25th birthday on Friday, has been, if not here exactly, then somewhere like this before. Three years ago, he made the quarterfinals of this tournament, and his ranking soon shot up to No. 29 in the world. He figured his tennis life would simply continue the upward trajectory that began when he picked up a racket as a small child at the club where his father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, was a maintenance worker, and began hitting balls against a wall.
He quickly caught the eye of tennis coaches there, and later the United States Tennis Association, which helped fund his development through his teenage years. But that breakthrough at the 2019 Australian Open resulted in complacency rather than hunger. He practiced and trained hard only when he felt like it, or skipped it altogether. He paid little attention to what he ate.
He lost more often than he won and fell out of the top 80.
Wayne Ferreira, a former pro from South Africa who started coaching Tiafoe in 2020, said in September that Tiafoe might have suffered from having it all come so easily.
“I think I helped him because I played and I went through the issues of being relatively talented and being lazy,” Ferreira said in September. “Food intake was terrible at the beginning. The effort on the practices and on the court wasn’t good enough. It’s taken time for us to get gradually to where we are today.”
Tiafoe said he was virtually unrecognizable from the person and the player he was three years ago, the one who suddenly found himself playing challenger tournaments on the sport’s back roads.
“You lose confidence, and then by the time you know it, people start figuring it out,” he said. At that point, he said, you wonder, “Where did it all go?”
Now Tiafoe must figure out how to regulate two seemingly contradictory forces within his personality. There is the laid back, easygoing jokester with an electric smile, and the intense competitor who desperately wants to fulfill the potential that he and everyone around him knows he has.
“Frances has always had his way,” said Tommy Paul, who has trained and competed with Tiafoe since they were among the country’s top 9-year-olds. “He’s calm somewhere, but he’s Frances. It’s different.”
That it is.
Tiafoe’s courtside chair and its surroundings are usually a disorganized mess of towels, water bottles, rackets, tape and other equipment. He operates on his own schedule, which may or may not help him get a watch sponsorship, depending on a manufacturer’s perspective.
At the Laver Cup in September, where Tiafoe teamed up with Jack Sock to play Nadal and Roger Federer in Federer’s last competitive match, Tiafoe ran to the other side of the court to slap Nadal’s hand in the middle of the game after Nadal hit a masterful winner. After Team World beat the Europeans, he showed up characteristically late to the news conference, where he took out a bottle of water and a Budweiser from his jacket.
He was late again after the United States clinched the United Cup earlier this month in Sydney. His teammates, Taylor Fritz, Jessica Pegula and Madison Keys, sat at a table, waiting and shaking their heads.
“Oh, Frances,” Keys said, trying to hold in her laughter.
The casual approach has its benefits. Pegula and Tiafoe bonded at that United Cup in a way that male and female players rarely do, warming each other up before each match, a routine that they have continued during this tournament.
Pegula, who is ranked third in the world, said she and Tiafoe had a kind of yin-and-yang energy in the hours before they compete. She comes onto the court a bundle of nerves, especially if she is not hitting well. He comes out “just so happy-go-lucky, the biggest hype person ever,” she said.
“I’m a little bit more focused, which he needs,” she added. “He says he feels like the best player in the world when he hits with me.”
Tiafoe said hitting with Pegula had allowed him to soak up everything he could from someone who is playing the best tennis of her life.
“You can learn from greatness,” he said. “You can learn from people doing stuff at a high level.”
He knows his recent success has wrought expectations that are higher than ever. In his case, though, they carry a different sort of pressure. A player who goes toe-to-toe with the best players in the world with an irreverent attitude, a messy changeover area, a penchant for tardiness and eye-popping clothes is colorful. But do all those things and lose in the first week and you are seen as unserious, sloppy, tardy and with questionable fashion sense. Nadal’s famous clam-diggers only worked because he won armloads of trophies while wearing them.
During the interview Monday, Tiafoe said he was on a mission. Gone are the days when he was happy to make the fourth round. He wants to beat the best players in the world, in the biggest stadiums, in the most important tournaments.
If he can do that, his journey really will be the stuff of Hollywood movies, and maybe someone will make one about him someday.
But as Ferreira pointed out during his U.S. Open run, “You only get movies if you do well.”