WASHINGTON, August 17, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
“A standing-O for Big Foe! Get used to this name and this face and all of his energy,” said Tennis Channel presenter Mary Carillo, commenting on #NextGenATP American wild card Frances Tiafoe‘s biggest win of his young professional career, a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over fellow #NextGenATP star and World No. 7 Alexander Zverev at the Masters 1000 Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Wednesday afternoon.
As Carillo spoke to a nationwide cable TV audience in the U.S., the cameras focused on the 19-year-old Tiafoe, who let out a scream that could be heard throughout the entire Lindner Family Tennis Center, as he clinched his fists and slapped his heart while basking in the applause of an appreciative Center Court crowd. As celebrations go, it was a pretty good one. Tiafoe had so much to celebrate about – so much energy to expend – that he rushed over to high-five a handful of first-row spectators. Then, it was off to do a TV interview with Tennis Channel at their patio stage on the grounds near Center Court.
“I’m pretty tired right now and I could tell (Zverev) was tired, too. It was an all-around tough match,” said Tiafoe, grinning as he spoke. “I had to get through it. My game plan was to keep the rallies long – keep him out there – and that’s what I did.”
Wednesday afternoon’s break-out victory represented the Maryland-native Tiafoe’s first victory over Zverev and it was just his second Top 50 victory in 14 tries. Plus, he moved up 17 places to No. 70 in the live ATP rankings. Asked what he learned about himself, Tiafoe said, “I guess I’m a pretty decent player,” without missing a beat. “Right now, I’m really happy about this win.”
Tiafoe put up good numbers against Zverev on Wednesday – eight service aces, a 62% first-serve percentage and he won 73% of his first-serve points. He outpointed Zverev 97-81.
At No. 7, Zverev is the highest-ranked player Tiafoe has beaten this year and it was just his fifth World Tour victory of 2017. Next, he faces the No. 14 seed and fellow American John Isner in the round of 16 on Center Court Thursday afternoon. In their only meeting, Isner beat Tiafoe in last year’s U.S. Open first round, but it took him five sets to do it, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3). “I know he’ll be serving up a storm, putting some big-boy heat on me,” said Tiafoe. “We played an unbelievable match in New York (last year); hopefully I’ll do well.”
Zverev’s been in a groove for the past two weeks – easily the talk of the tennis world in a summer filled with injuries to its biggest stars – and, his remarkable 10-match winning streak, all on hard courts, yielded back-to-back titles at Washington, D.C. and Montréal, Quebec. While the German had tough first-match opponents at both the Citi Open and the Rogers Cup, on Wednesday afternoon it seemed the longer Zverev’s match against Tiafoe stretched out – it lasted one hour and 56 minutes – the more he appeared to run out of energy. Tiafoe was the fresher player at the end. There were plenty of long, drawn out rallies full of powerful shots by both players, and the two combined for 10 service breaks. Although Zverev fired 12 aces, he also committed seven double faults, and had difficulty winning points on his second serve. He converted just 13 of 42 opportunities (31 percent efficiency).
Perhaps, Zverev can be forgiven for feeling “dead” following all of his recent on-court success. It’s been a brutal stretch that’s seen him play in a 500 level and two Masters 1000 tournaments without a break. Fortunately, he’s got a good head on his shoulders and a solid team behind him, and no doubt he’ll put everything in perspective and learn from his loss to Tiafoe. Plus, there’s the added bonus of getting a few extra days to get ready for the U.S. Open, where a Top 5 seed awaits in what many expect to be a break out Grand Slam for him.
As for Tiafoe, his triumph over Zverev represents the kind of win that definitely can be a big boost to his confidence – a career changer. On Wednesday afternoon, he proved he could perform at a Top 10 level – and, it’s good for the sport, too. Looking ahead, I see a bright future for a Tiafoe-Zverev rivalry. Both are young, bright and likable players with star appeal.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.