24-year-old takes on Fritz in Sunday’s final in Tokyo
Prior to this week’s Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships, Frances Tiafoe was asked about his goals for the rest of the 2022 season.
“Maybe more titles. I’ve not won a title in a long time,” responded the American, whose sole ATP Tour crown came in Delray Beach in 2018. “I’ve been close, but if I’ve won a title by the end of the year, if I can sneak one…”
On Saturday, a hard-fought semi-final victory against Soonwoo Kwon in Tokyo moved Tiafoe within one win of fulfilling that goal, perhaps sooner than he imagined. Friend and countryman Taylor Fritz awaits in Sunday’s final, but Tiafoe will be feeling confident after recently notching what he sees as career-defining wins at the US Open (where he beat Rafael Nadal en route to the semi-finals) and the Laver Cup (where he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas to clinch the trophy for Team World).
“I think those wins are massive,” Tiafoe recently told ATPTour.com. “I’m playing some of the best tennis of my career so far right now, for sure, and I think I needed it. I’ve been on the brink for a while now, steadily getting my ranking back up and playing much better, so it feels nice for the rewards to be paying off now, but yeah, it comes with the territory and I’m ready for it.”
Coming into the US Open in late August, Tiafoe could look back on a solid yet inconsistent first eight months of his 2022 season, with a final in Estoril and a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon among the highlights. He found a new level at Flushing Meadows, however, downing Nadal and Andrey Rublev to reach his maiden Grand Slam semi-final where eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz needed five sets to halt the American's charge.
Tiafoe’s run was one of the stories of the fortnight in New York and with it came some unexpected attention. Following the Nadal win, Tiafoe was tweeted by LeBron James (“CONGRATS Young King!!!” wrote the NBA legend) while Michelle Obama was waiting to greet him shortly after the Alcaraz match. Tiafoe could hardly avoid noticing the rise in his profile in his homeland, but the 24-year-old found it surprisingly easy to stay focused on his tennis.
“Definitely I was in new territory during that tournament, but I was just so in the moment,” said Tiafoe. “Obviously, everything happened so fast, a lot of different distractions, I was just being me. I was just enjoying my tennis out there. I was just having fun, I didn’t really get too lost in that; I just kept the main thing [as] the main thing.”
At the Laver Cup in London two weeks ago, Tiafoe brought his best to the big stage once again, completing a stunning comeback win against Stefanos Tsitsipas in a Match Tie-break to earn the decisive points that sealed Team World’s first victory at the event in five attempts.
“Clinching the Laver Cup was amazing,” said Tiafoe. “I have to say hats off to all those guys. [Alex] De Minaur, Felix [Auger-Aliassime], Jack Sock, [Diego] Schwartzman, Fritz. I mean these guys, they all played their part… Then it was me who got to end it. The tactics from the side were unbelievable… [The guys] said, ‘You’re able to turn that around.’ It was special. Especially against that guy who is an incredible player.”
On the first day of competition in London, Tiafoe had teamed with Jack Sock to take on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in doubles. It was the last match of Federer’s storied career, but Tiafoe was not afraid to spoil the party at the O2 as the American duo secured a thrilling victory.
“I mean obviously they’re great players,” said Tiafoe of Federer and Nadal. “It was tough. We weren’t supposed to get that done, but for us to go and get that done was huge and I’m happy we did.”
On Sunday, Tiafoe or Fritz will become the first American champion at the ATP 500 event in Tokyo since Pete Sampras in 1996. Although they are often rivals on the court, Tiafoe acknowledged that a positive energy among the ATP Tour's American contingent has helped him discover extra belief when it comes to taking on the world’s best.
“It’s so good that we’re all having great times and playing the best tennis of our lives," said Tiafoe. "I think we’re all bigging up each other, guys doing well.
“I’d seen Fritz beat Rafa in Indian Wells in the final. The time I played [Nadal], I was like ‘OK cool, I can do this’. You know, you start believing it. Tommy Paul is having the best season of his life, playing great. Reilly [Opelka]’s playing great, although he got hurt. The guys are playing some great tennis.
“We all grew up together so it's all good blood and to be playing Under 12s together and then to be playing in the Laver Cup team together, it’s crazy. But we’ve got so much more to give to the game, so I’m super excited.”
With just over six weeks left of the 2022 season, Tiafoe is determined to make the most of his strong form. Even if he checks winning a title off his list of goals with victory in Tokyo on Sunday, he has his eyes set on finishing the year as high as he can in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
“Short-term, if I can end the year in the Top 16, so I would be a Top 16 seed for the Aussie Open, that would be cool,” said the American, who would rise to a career-high No. 15 on Monday should he lift the trophy in Japan. “I would have had a great year.
“Then, honestly, [next year] it’s the Masters series and the Slams. Next year, I’m going to really try to be attacking those. I’m expecting myself to be well, well prepped for them. Every Slam, and all the Masters.”
Before all that, of course, Tiafoe must prepare for his fifth tour-level final in Tokyo. Regardless of the result against Fritz, however, the American believes the signs are good for him moving forward.
"I'm getting in a really good rhythm,” he said after defeating Kwon on Saturday. “I feel good, I feel really confident. [It’s the] best time in my career right now on and off court. I’m having fun, meeting people I wouldn't usually meet. I'm just enjoying life right now."
Photo Credit: Hiroshi Sato