WIMBLEDON – There is a behind-the-scenes moment captured during a recently released episode of the Netflix docuseries “Break Point” where Frances Tiafoe is warming up in a nearly empty Arthur Ashe Stadium hours before his fourth-round U.S. Open match against 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal.
“I’m so pumped up for today,” Tiafoe tells his coach, Wayne Ferreira, between practice serves. “I’m coming after this (expletive), bro.”
To which Ferreira responds: “I wouldn’t see any reason why you wouldn’t.”
Tiafoe would, indeed, go after Nadal that September night while producing what was undoubtedly the biggest victory of the American’s career so far, a step along the way to his debut in a Grand Slam semifinal in New York.
It also was part of a surge by Tiafoe that has continued this season. He heads into Wimbledon, which starts on Monday, ranked in the Top 10 for the first time on the heels of winning a grass-court tournament for the first time.
“I knew I was capable on grass, but winning a title helps. Winning on a Sunday just gives you confidence, in general. Since the U.S. Open, any time I’m on a hard or grass court, I feel like I’m at my best and one of the best players in the world and have a chance against anybody,” Tiafoe said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So I have high hopes for Wimbledon.”
Hard to see a reason why he wouldn't. Consider the way Tiafoe has performed lately: Since entering 2023 with one career ATP title and a .517 winning percentage, the 25-year-old from Maryland has claimed a pair of trophies while winning at a .737 clip.
It’s part of what Tiafoe called “this revamp,” a renewed resolve and dedication that came about after he made it into the Top 100 as a teenager in early 2017 and rose to the Top 30 two years later, but dropped all the way down to No. 84 in 2020.
On June 19, the day following his title at Stuttgart, Germany, Tiafoe got to No. 10.
“It's a testament to all of the sacrifices I've made for the game," Tiafoe said. "I’ve done it my own way, and I’m here now — and planning to stay for a while.”
He joined Taylor Fritz as the first pair of American men simultaneously in the Top 10 since Mardy Fish and John Isner in May 2012. Tiafoe is also the first African-American man to be among the ATP’s best 10 players since James Blake in January 2009 — and just the third in the half-century of computerized rankings, along with Arthur Ashe in the 1970s.
Tiafoe and Blake traded text messages about the accomplishment.
“Told him, ‘I always wanted to be like you, growing up,’” Tiafoe recounted.
“I’m so proud of him and the hard work he has put in,” Blake told the AP. “Top 10 is something that can never be taken away and it doesn’t come without hard work and determination. He has put in the hours and followed up on his breakout performance last year at the Open. I’m looking forward to his continued success and watching him inspire the next generation.”
Providing an example and being an inspiration to others are things Tiafoe talks about, too.
His “Cinderella story,” as he puts it, is unique and, by now, well-known: His parents emigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone in West Africa amid its civil war in the 1990s; they ended up in Maryland, where his father helped construct a tennis training center for juniors, then became a maintenance man there; his mother was a nurse working two jobs; Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, picked up tennis where dad’s job was.
“The U.S. Open was my big, obviously, breakout moment. All the hype around it in New York. You can’t imagine,” Tiafoe said. “An American story. My story.”
The Netflix episode that focused on his Flushing Meadows experience — the hugs and laughter after beating Nadal; the tears after losing to eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz — “got me emotional,” he said.
“To be able to relive those little moments — the car rides after certain things or my reaction to winning a big match. The people around me. You can only relive the actual moment of what happened, which is the match, not everything outside of it," Tiafoe said. "Ten years from now, I’m not going to remember what I said in that particular moment. All those things are so cool, man.”
Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich