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Frances Tiafoe Is Getting Lost In The American Shuffle

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 17: Frances Tiafoe of the United States falls to ground in the round two men's singles match against Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic during the 2024 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 17, 2024 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Will Murray/Getty Images)
Will Murray/Getty Images

At the 2022 U.S. Open, over "the craziest two weeks" of his life, Frances Tiafoe might have peaked. Up to that point, the then-24-year-old from Maryland had flashed brazen creative gifts on court but struggled with both point-to-point and week-to-week consistency. At that Open, as he reeled off the biggest win (and then near-win) of his career, Tiafoe shook up all expectations for the kind of player he might become.

In the fourth round, Tiafoe, who had never beaten a player of that caliber before, took out Rafael Nadal—the Spaniard's one loss in a major that year, and an end to his push for the No. 1 ranking. In his next match, he swept aside Andrey Rublev, a top-10 staple and consistent major quarterfinalist. In his first major semifinal—territory I never quite expected to find him in—Tiafoe dragged eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz to an intoxicating five-setter, with Michelle Obama watching. He lost that match, but won plenty of admirers; he'd conclusively raised his tennis to match his charisma levels. Casual observers began to learn his story: The son of a Sierra Leonean immigrant who worked at a custodian at a tennis center, Tiafoe lived on the premises and built up his idiosyncratic technique by hitting against walls after hours.

As far as guidance, his partnership with coach Wayne Ferreira was looking incredibly fruitful—they'd sharpened his serve into a weapon and tightened up his point construction. In 2023 Tiafoe became a top-10 player and the kind of name who could lure Joakim Noah and Queen Latifah out to Court 7 at Roland-Garros, or Kevin Durant and Pusha T out to the humble Citi Open in D.C. While Tiafoe has never been the highest ranked of his countrymen—Taylor Fritz still led him, by a hair—he was briefly a lodestar for the men's game in America.

I say "briefly" because it is impossible to coast on past results in tennis. Rankings points must be defended constantly; new and younger foes are always pouring into the game. Not-so-distant runs of brilliance feel like relics. A few weeks into the 2024 season, it's already hard to remember that the path for Tiafoe once looked quite that luminous. The last five months don't tell a story of a player who could credibly tango with Carlos Alcaraz in the late rounds of a major. Tiafoe fell into a rut after the 2023 U.S. Open and has won just seven of 17 matches since then. In the offseason he ended his three-year run with Ferreira. "Sheesh, we had a ton of success. But sadly we’ve decided to part ways. Thanks for getting me to the player I am today," Tiafoe wrote on Instagram. He's since teamed up with Diego Moyano, a coach he used to work with in his junior days. And taking in the broader picture, the 26-year-old is receding back into the broader wave of American tennis as his compatriots elevate their own games.

In the ATP rankings released Monday, Tiafoe is No. 15, tellingly sandwiched between fellow Americans Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul, both of whom have gotten the better of him lately. Shelton, who was then winding down his first-ever full season as pro, beat Tiafoe in an all-black-American U.S. Open quarterfinal last fall. It was a stifling, sweaty affair and Tiafoe came up flat in the type of match where he'd typically thrived: on home soil, plenty of support. Even though Tiafoe has more more shimmer and ingenuity to his game, Shelton's lefty serve—which he can deliver with devilish spin or nearly 150-mph pace as he sees fit—might be the single most valuable tennis skill that those two players have between them. Add in some outlier size and athleticism, and there's the foundation for a dangerous player who may well eclipse Tiafoe and the other Americans in the coming years. While Shelton has had his own uneven results outside of precocity at the hard-court majors, it's worth noting that he was one of two players to beat Jannik Sinner during his ongoing 32-2 rampage. (The other one was Novak Djokovic.) Shelton's game is already big enough to bother the world's best on hard courts, and he's only a 21-year-old in season two.

Elsewhere, a direct contemporary like Tommy Paul is threatening to surpass Tiafoe at his own game. Paul appears to have left behind his past buffoonery—like, say, showing up drunk to his 2017 U.S. Open doubles match—and has refined his game of soft hands, fast feet, and all-court comfort. That roughly describes Tiafoe's strengths as well—Paul's just executing at a higher level at the moment. He had a pair of fascinating matches against Carlos Alcaraz last summer, winning one, and while he continues to fall short against the very best, he looks like a top-20 staple for the foreseeable future. Paul comfortably scooted past Tiafoe, 6-2, 6-4, in their semifinal matchup in Delray over the weekend; it was Paul's seventh straight win, after having won a title the week before in Dallas, beating Shelton en route. (The intra-U.S. rivalries are heating up; Paul also lost to Taylor Fritz in the Delray final, as the top-ranked American made perfectly clear where he stands in the hierarchy. What Fritz lacks in high-end spicy results, he makes up for by beating all the guys he should beat.)

Tiafoe has been losing to all these guys. He also lost handily to a lesser-ranked American, world No. 67 Marcus Giron, a 30-year-old who's on a nice trajectory and just cracked the top 50 but shouldn't be causing a prime Tiafoe much woe. There have been a handful of other eyebrow-raising losses in this dull patch. It's hard to figure out exactly what's gone wrong with the cheeky showman, who's been playing tennis shorn of his usual joy over these last few months. One area of technical weakness is clear enough: During this 7-10 slump, Tiafoe has had nine matches where he won less than half of the points behind his second serve. He's long had a troubling tendency to roll those serves in without much purpose; Shelton in particular made him pay for that in that deflating U.S. Open quarterfinal. Tiafoe is not exceptional on return, and his surge in 2022 and 2023 was predicated on the advances he'd made on his own serve, which he changed from a point-starter into a genuine weapon. If he surrenders that edge, he might not have a secure foothold in the top 20 anymore.

Tiafoe's got plenty of ranking points to protect in the coming weeks, most notably the hefty chunk of 360 points he won by making the semifinal at Indian Wells last year. I believe tennis is vastly more entertaining when Tiafoe is laughing and sprinting and chopping up the opposition in style. Right now he's got a lot of work to do to retain his hard-won relevance.

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