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Frances Tiafoe keeps his eyes on the big prize: winning the US Open

By Sigurd Neubauer


He’s having the best year of his career. 

Frances Tiafoe, 25, is a man in a rush: At the US Open in New York, he’s won all of his matches.

Earlier this year, the American achieved his long-term goal of becoming a top 10 player.  

In April, he won the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship, his second ATP title.

Now, he’s inching closer towards achieving another long-term goal: winning his first Grand Slam title.

On Sunday, Tiafoe defeated Rinky Hijikata, 22, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4. 

But in New York, where the unofficial mantra is, ‘Pressure is Privilege,’ Tiafoe is relishing in it. As the crowd pleaser that he is, Tiafoe’s ambition will be tested on Tuesday when he faces off against fellow American Ben Shelton, 22, in the quarterfinals. 

Tiafoe faces off against Shelton in the quarterfinals. Photo credit: Jonathon Braden/USTA

Vesa Ponkka is one of America’s preeminent tennis coaches. Photo credit: Courtesy 

Following his victory at the Louis Armstrong Stadium on Sunday, Tiafoe commented on his upcoming match, saying: “It’s big. It’s a big match. He’s Bugs Bunny. He’s got crazy energy. He’s going to come after me, and I’m going to come after him. And I’m sure it’ll be in the big house [Arthur Ashe Stadium], and I want to make the semifinals.”

On Friday, Tiafoe defeated Adrian Mannarino, 35,  4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 7-6(6) during the third round. 

Following Tiafeoe’s victory on Friday, Tiafoe told supporters: “You guys are incredible. You guys get so behind me. You guys are right on top of me—I love this court.”  

At the US Open, the crowd has become increasingly pro-American in recent years, which gives Tiafoe an obvious advantage against his international competitors. To what extent the crowd will continue to forcefully support Tiafoe once he faces off against Shelton – in what will be an all American match –  will remain to be seen. 

What is clear, however, is that Tiafoe is playing the best tennis of his life. He’s also relishing in the spotlight. 

Commenting on what’s next for Tiafoe, President of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) Vesa Ponkka, points out that Tiafoe will be preparing for his upcoming match against Shelton on Monday afternoon by playing with someone with a strong left-hand and a powerful serve.  “During  Shelton’s 6-4 6-3 4-6 6-4 Sunday afternoon victory over Tommy Paul, 26, Shelton delivered the fastest serve of the tournament – and possibly of the year – at 147 miles-per-hour,” he explains.

The JTCC President predicts that Shelton will become a top 10 player in the world who may be able to win Grand Slams. “Shelton will be winning a lot, there’s no doubt about it.” 

But weather conditions in New York may also become a factor for Tuesday’s all American match as the temperature is expected to exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius) with high humidity.

Ponkka, who is also one of America’s preeminent tennis coaches, knows Tiafoe well from the 20 years the American wonderkind spent at the JTCC.  “Tiafoe is dealing with the heightened pressure really well. He’s calm and collected, and he’s ‘taking care of business,’ as he’s winning his matches.”

“The atmosphere in New York is excellent, but the stadiums are packed as one can barely move around,” the JTCC President reveals.  He’s pointing to the fact that “American players are doing really well this year, both men and women,” he adds. 

Responding to what characterized Tiafoe’s match against Hijikata on Sunday, Ponkka points out that Tiafoe is a better player whose game is more advanced. “Tiafoe’s match on Sunday was decent, but he won it.”  The JTCC President ranks Tiafoe’s performance against the Australian as a “B Minus” but emphasizes that Tiafoe needs to play better during his upcoming match against Shelton. “But Tiafoe was able to handle his nerves as he was the favorite although the Australian is an up-and-coming player.”

During the first set, “Tiafoe didn’t do well,  which is why it was too close to comfort. But he improved his game during the second and third sets,” Ponkka explains, but quips:  “The match wasn’t too taxing psychically, which leaves Tiafoe with ‘enough gas in the tank’ for tomorrow.” 

Hijikata – who has broken into the top 100 ranked players in the world – has had a good tournament at the US Open. He’s previously played college tennis at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hijikata and Jason Kubler also won the 2023 Australian Open’s men’s double competition. “Hijikata is a strong technical player with great volleys, which is why he’s so good in doubles,” Ponkka explains. 

Commenting on Tiafoe’s match against Mannarino on Friday last week, the JTCC President points out that the American was able to keep the tempo high enough to rush the Frenchman. 

“2023 has been a good year for Mannarino, who has been both a top 100 and top 50 player. He’s a very tricky player to face as he consistently changes the rhythm and tempo of the game.”

Ponkka adds: “Tiafoe was able to rush Mannarino who consistently tries to take the tempo down. The Frenchman did well during the first set, but Tiafo was able to adjust, and from that point on, there was no doubt who was going to win.”

Mannarino, the veteran coach reveals, “is fun to watch because of his tactics but he’s hard to play against because of his ability to hit lots of soft and slow balls which he’s able to place excellently. Because of this, no one is looking forward to playing against him.”

Hijikata won the 2023 Australian Open's men's double competition. Photo credit: Garrett Ellwood/USTA
 Tiafoe is performing like the top 10 player that he is: Ponkka 
Mannarino is hard to play against because of his abilities to hit lots of soft and slow balls, which he's able to place excellently. Photo credit: Mike Lawrence/USTA
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