Frances Tiafoe Brings Fun Back to his Tennis, and Wins Follow

Frances Tiafoe Brings Fun Back to his Tennis, and Wins Follow

Frances Tiafoe looked ready for big-time success on the tennis court in this suburb of Lisbon — until he was handed a celebratory Champagne bottle after the final on Sunday.

Tiafoe, the runner-up, struggled to open it for several minutes before being helped by a tournament emcee.

Tiafoe, 20, was the youngest American man to reach a tour final on European clay in 28 years; Andre Agassi was two months younger when he reached the final of the 1990 French Open. Tiafoe fell, 6-4, 6-4, in the final of the Estoril Open to João Sousa, who was the first Portuguese champion of a tour-level event in Portugal.

“He’s a great guy and he’s improving a lot,” Sousa, 29, said of Tiafoe. “He’s going to reach a lot of finals.”

Playing in front of a crowd vociferously and unanimously supporting his opponent was a new experience that “didn’t feel great,” Tiafoe said, but there were plenty of positives to draw from the week. His semifinal performance, a 6-2, 6-3 thrashing of 11th-ranked Pablo Carreño Busta, was especially impressive. He also saved three match points in an opening-round victory over Tennys Sandgren.

“It was an unbelievable week, and I hope I can just keep it going,” Tiafoe said.

He has been considered one of the greatest prospects in his generation from a young age, but since turning pro in 2015 he has achieved relatively little at the tour level.

He drew some attention for five-set losses in the first round of the United States Open against John Isner in 2016 and Roger Federer in 2017, but coming into the 2018 season, Tiafoe had won only nine of his 38 career main-draw matches on the ATP Tour. Only one of those victories came against a top-30 opponent.

Tiafoe has 15 wins already this season, including six against top-30 opponents. He reached his first tour quarterfinal at the New York Open in February, and won his first title in Delray Beach, Fla., one week later.

The surge seemed unlikely after the first month of the season. After going winless in two tournaments in Australia, Tiafoe returned home to Maryland downtrodden.

“At first we were just friends, but now he’s definitely taken on a coaching role under Robby. Robby comes to the bigger events, but Zack’s there each and every day.”

That stability has helped ground Tiafoe, who admits he has “had a lot of things going on” previously, including changing agencies twice in his young career.

Evenden said that a key for Tiafoe had been learning to take “ownership” of his tennis and measure his own gifts.

“He’s understanding that he doesn’t have to play his best tennis, highlight-reel tennis, in every match just to get wins,” Evenden said. “He’s starting to get comfortable on the tour and realized that he doesn’t have to have the match of his life just to get a win.”

Tiafoe comfort level on the tour shows itself in other ways.

As he returned to the clubhouse after the final Sunday, Tiafoe turned up the stereo in a tournament car and gave a brief impromptu performance of OutKast’s “The Way You Move” to an audience of charmed volunteers.

“It’s good to bring a different feel to tennis, and that’s what I feel like I bring,” he said. “I bring a different feel, a different swagger to tennis. I’m very easygoing, and very nonchalant, it looks like, when I’m out there — I’ve got a little strut, and I like that.

“There’s no reason trying to fit in: Just be you,” he added. “That was the biggest thing for me, just being me, and finding what works for me. I have that balance of having fun — because I can need to have a ton of fun — but also locking it in at times. I’ve found the perfect balance for me right now, and I’m being mature and growing as a tennis player.”

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