Francis Tiafoe, one of the best young American talents, defeated #7 ranked Alex Zverev 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, yesterday at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati. This win against a top 10 player, who was on 10-match, 2 tournament win streak was by far the biggest win of Tiafoe’s young career. It was important for Tiafoe to know that he could not only stick with a top 10 player, but also against one that is his age. Tiafoe said after the match, “This is a big relief for me. We grew up together playing junior Grand Slams, playing Under-12s, Under-14s. I have known him for forever. Seeing him rise like that, I was, like, ‘Maybe I can do the same’. Then he beat me twice, and I was, like, ‘All right, maybe I can’t’. So me beating him today made me feel pretty good.”
This is a common thought process for young players. Doubt can creep in quickly so benchmark victories are key in a player’s development. Any young player can learn from various aspects of Tiafoe’s victory in Cincinnati.
Down a set, after being broken at 4-5 to lose the first set, it would have been easy for Tiafoe to fold against someone who had just beaten Roger Federer in a final the week prior, but he was on the front foot straight away in the 2nd. He broke right away hitting a massive backhand approach to break and go up 3-0. He had to know that Zverez wasn’t just going to roll over and he stayed focused serving at 3-2 and played a masterful point (shown below) where he showed his bag of tricks, first hitting a drop shot then lobbing Zverez, before putting away Zverez’s outrageous tweener. Tiafoe understood that if he knew he wouldn’t be able to beat him by trading baseline blows and this kind of point served him well throughout the final two sets. You have to know your opponent, and Zverev was someone who has played alot of tennis over the last month, so keeping him on the move, tiring him out, was tactically astute.
If you’re a beginner or an advanced junior, making tiny measured improvements on particular skills can be extremely difficult. To find the accuracy on your down the line backhand or have the perfect footwork on your volleys takes hours of practice and hard work. While Tiafoe is blessed with the skill to squash any of us mere mortals, he will have to find a way to up his game to consistently compete against top 10 players as he did in Cincinnati. While Tiafoe’s game is currently based around his raw skill and athleticism that lends itself to a defensive, grind it out, style that is taxing and one dimensional. He did show however, that he is developing a more all-around game. While he still was defensive for the most part, he went for big passing shots and was more aggressive in key moments then he has been in the past. Finding that balance of what you do well while incorporating new elements in to your game over time is what will ultimately help you progress as a player.
We have all been in Tiafoe’s shoes. There is that one player from our age group, from your friend group, or from a neighboring high school that you just can’t seem to beat. Tiafoe probably would have been feeling that after two straight set matches against Zverev on big stages this year, but he showed the mental strength he had previously been missing. Especially after going down a set to a player who is riding so high, it would have been easy for Tiafoe to roll over but he did the exact opposite, taking the match to Zverev. He could have looked at it as, here is someone who is the hottest player in the game who has my number but instead he talked about how he thought he could take advantage of him. He explained after the match, “Strategy was just keep him out there. He has to be tired. He’s played a tough couple of weeks, tough matches. A lot of night matches, too.” The positivity will be key for Tiafoe, and any young player has to learn that no situation is insurmountable.