COVID-19 could not stop last American men’s player from reaching round of 16 at US Open

NEW YORK — The last American male standing at the U.S. Open is ranked No. 82 in the world and began his summer by announcing on the Fourth of July that he had tested positive for COVID-19.  He aims to continue it on Labor Day with a different sort of positive, in Arthur Ashe Stadium, in a round-of-16 matchup against No. 5 Daniil Medvedev, who battled Rafael Nadal over five sets in last year's final.

“I’m ready to go now,” Frances Tiafoe told USA TODAY Sports after a practice session Sunday. “Feeling good and playing well. My (COVID-19 result) was definitely a shock to everybody. My symptoms weren’t too bad, thank God.”  He believes it was almost a blessing that the Citi Open, the August tour stop in D.C., not far from where he grew up (Hyattsville, Maryland) was canceled.

“I was pretty nervous about that, because I didn’t have much time to prepare," he said. "In hindsight I think everything worked out in my favor.”

Frances Tiafoe is the last American male playing at this year's U.S. Open, (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports)

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Tiafoe is 22, and nicknamed The Foe. He is one of the best stories in American tennis, and he was even before he made the fourth round at the Open for the first time. He is the son of refugees who fled Sierra Leone amid a civil war. His father, Constant, helped on the construction of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland, then worked as a maintenance man there, where his five-year-old boy would hit the ball against the wall, pretending he was playing Roger Federer at the U.S. Open.

Three years ago, Tiafoe did just that, and took Federer to five sets.

Martin Blackman, general manager of USTA, player development, used to be the Director of Tennis at JTCC and has known Tiafoe since he was a little kid.

“His father’s work ethic is tremendous, and to see the sacrifices that he and Alfina (his wife) have made for their son paying off is a story of resilience, hope and success – the kind of story we need right now,” Blackman wrote USA TODAY Sports in an email.

At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Tiafoe is a superb mover on the court, with wicked forehand racket speed, enabling him to generate pace and spin. His backhand is a weapon, too. Tiafoe has  had spurts of brilliance, getting up to No. 29, and making a run to the Australian quarterfinals last year, but he has had a propensity for forcing things, playing high-risk tennis at the wrong times, sometimes going for a highlight-reel winner when it wasn’t called for.

He called Saturday’s third-round victory over Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics “one of my best performances, start to finish.  Fucsovics had won their previous two meetings.

 “I was playing smart,” Tiafoe said. “I wasn't trying to be too fancy. I just kind of got it done today. Very professional, very businesslike. Those are the kind of performances I'm looking forward to in the future.”

Tiafoe has a bouncy, jaunty walk, on his tip toes, looking as if he might pitch forward at any moment. He is as exuberant and demonstrative on court as any player on the tour. In the fifth game of the third set against Fucsovics, Tiafoe looked to have hit an angled forehand winner, before Fucsovics sprinted off the court and hit a winner around the net post. Tiafoe gasped, put his hand over his mouth, and walked backwards, as if to say, ‘There’s no way you just did that.” He spent most of the ensuing changeover laughing about it.

 “I’m an open guy,” Tiafoe said.

OH. MY. 🔥🔥🔥

Come for the INSANE Fucsovics around-the-net shot, stay for @FTiafoe ‘s reaction 😂 pic.twitter.com/TQMR3glouR

Blackman has long believed Tiafoe had the potential to be an elite player, and that he starting to show more prudence with his shot selection, as well as a much-improved ability to weather the emotional extremes that come with almost every high-stakes match.

“His temperament has been even (at this Open), and he’s showing positive emotion at the right time,” Blackman said. “I see the biggest differences as maturity and discipline in his tactical execution.”

Tiafoe and Blackman both credit his new coach, Wayne Ferreira, a former top 10 player from South Africa, with his improvement. To sharpen Tiafoe’s focus, Ferreira has had him do his fitness work without music, and requires him to hit 30 consecutive shots in the middle of the court or cross-court. If he misses, he has to start over. 

“I'm very loosey-goosey guy,” Tiafoe said. “He's kind of getting me to dial it all in. Running on a treadmill for 30 minutes with no music was horrible, looking at a wall, absolutely horrible.”

It has paid dividends at the Open. Tiafoe won the first five-set match of his career in the second round against a relentless Australian, John Millman. He is in the second week of the Open for the first time. Tiafoe has lost both of his matches against Medvedev, a 6-foot-6 Russian. Two months after he was taken down by the coronavirus, he is eager to show off his new, fully recovered self, and keep his tournament going.

“When I’m playing my best, I think I can play with anyone,” Tiafoe said.

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