Frances Tiafoe’s early Wimbledon exit hurts, but offers another chance to regroup

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LONDON — Frances Tiafoe’s friends and family hoped to celebrate his feat of reaching the top 10 in the rankings when he traveled home after Wimbledon. But as he faced a small group of reporters a half hour after his third-round defeat at the championships, he was in no mood to even contemplate a smile.

“It’s going to be tough to go home and everyone’s going to be excited to see me, but I’m just not going to want to do anything,” Tiafoe said. “I’ve never really felt like this after a loss. … Usually I rise to occasions and I’m shocked how I performed today. It’s just crazy to me.”

That weight of devastation at losing in straight sets to Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 is a sign of how far he’s come over the last couple of years. He cares little about what others think — it’s falling short of his own high hopes that hurts the most. “I want to win a Slam for me and I don’t feel any expectation other than it’s a bad performance today,” he said.

Tiafoe called the defeat to Dimitrov “horrible stuff” and said his performance was “very, very depressing.” The match started Saturday and, when rain halted proceedings, Tiafoe was two-sets-to-love down. He managed to sleep well considering the circumstances, came out with “better energy” on Sunday but couldn’t hold back Dimitrov. “I mean, he did a good job,” Tiafoe said of Dimitrov. “He outplayed me.”

Eventually the frustration got too much. Tiafoe hadn’t managed to tame Dimitrov’s serve, and whatever strategies he tried, Tiafoe just couldn’t get a foothold in the match. The simmering anger boiled over in the seventh game of the third set. At 0-15 down on his own serve after sending a backhand long, as he prepared for his next serve, he launched a tennis ball into the skies and out of the court, receiving a code violation for ball abuse in the process. He then dropped serve a couple minutes later, giving Dimitrov a shot to serve for the match, and hammered his bag four times with his racket at the changeover.

Tiafoe was without doubt the favorite on court No. 2 — both in ranking and crowd preference — but it just never clicked. It took him 40 seconds or so to go from handshake to leaving the court. No messing around, just desolation and frustration.

But this is a blip, rather than a big setback for Tiafoe. While there were echoes of the 2020 Tiafoe, which fell to 84th in the world, in this uncharacteristic performance, he’s a world away from that headspace now.

In a pre-Wimbledon conversation, he spoke about how the pandemic allowed him a chance to reset, and became what he calls his “revamp.” He said he looked in the mirror during that time and said to himself, “Are you going to continue to just bullsh—, or you actually going to carry on and be the person you know you can be.”

He added, “Luckily I chose the right path.”

He hired Wayne Ferreira, and they changed his training and nutrition. His ranking improved, he won an ATP title in Houston in April on clay and he set his sights on the sport’s biggest prizes. “I mean I know my ability. I’m very, very gifted,” he said pre-tournament. “I have great capability to do a lot of great things, but if you look at the real picture and the story of it, it’s crazy that I’m top 10 in the world. But [there’s] so much more that I’m able to achieve. I really still feel like I haven’t scratched the surface.”

On June 18, he won at Stuttgart, his first ATP triumph on grass. He told those watching: “I’m a guy who shouldn’t even really be here doing half the things he’s doing.”

But what he’s learned over the last three years is that he does belong at the top. That tournament win secured his spot in the top 10 of the rankings for the first time. He phoned his dad Constant. “I mean, my dad never chokes up, he was crying on the phone when I called him,” Tiafoe said. “And for how hard he worked and for him to see me top 10 in the world … it’s a big moment. I mean it’s a big moment for a story like mine.”

It’s a story that’s been well-told, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. Born in Maryland, the 24-year-old is the son of immigrants who moved to the U.S. in the 1990s from war-torn Sierra Leone. Constant worked on the construction of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Washington, D.C. and ended up with the job of caretaker. He was given a room there where his boys — Frances and his twin brother, Franklin — would sleep some nights as their mom, Alphina, worked double shifts as a nurse. It was as far as possible from the typical start of most young tennis players.

Last year’s US Open was Tiafoe’s first breakthrough moment — where he beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, then reached his first slam semifinal. He had New York watching his every move. It was there that he proved to himself what he can achieve, and increased his thirst for a first Slam. Since then, he’s picked the brains of LeBron James, Steph Curry and Serena Williams, who he has played mixed doubles with.

“When Serena says something to me it hits the best because when I even get a text from her that she’s watching or ‘keep going’ … that means a lot because I’m not playing the game without her and her sister as well. Seeing them play finals at the US Open [when I was a young player], I was like, I want to do that. “

After three third-round exits at the Grand Slams in 2023, the US Open will be Tiafoe’s last shot this year to make another second-week run.Today’s match hurts the most so far.

When he met his coaching team post-match after the Dimitrov defeat, there were few words exchanged. “Everyone’s pretty down, tough to understand it, understand the why of it. I mean, we really had high hopes for Wimbledon. I generally think I’m one of the best grass-court players in the world, but today I didn’t show so [that] at all and I’m going to have to live with that.”

They’ll have to find a way to get him back to that pre-tournament mindset where he was ready to take on the world. That’s the 2023 Tiafoe who will wear this defeat, but will work harder than ever to prevent him ever feeling like this again.

“I got to continue, but it’s going to hurt for a very long time, and we’ll see how I bounce back.”

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