Frances Tiafoe sets sights on becoming force in Grand Slams

With the Australian Open in the books, Frances Tiafoe said he is excited to return to Delray Beach, Fla., in hopes of defending his title, or at least play his best.

“Obviously I put myself in a pretty good position because of the Australian Open,” Tiafoe said in an interview with USA TODAY on Tuesday. “If I don’t defend it, then it’s alright,” he added.

Tiafoe celebrated his 21st birthday on Jan. 20 with a win against No. 21 Grigor Dimitrov, propelling him to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. He became the second-youngest American man to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Andy Roddick, 20, made it to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2003.

Tiafoe lost to No. 2 Rafael Nadal in straight sets, but said he was grateful for the opportunity to play the Spaniard for the first time. “It was unbelievable, we’re good friends,” Tiafoe said. “He’s really nice to me all the time so I can’t wait to play him again.”

After making it to the quarterfinals, Tiafoe said he could barely talk. “I started crying and it’s kind of just a surreal moment for me, my family, everything I’ve been through,” he said.

Tiafoe learned to deal with the extreme heat in Melbourne, drinking pickle juice between sets. He pointed to a regular-sized water bottle and said he drank at least four before finding out he was supposed to only swig and spit out the pickle juice. “But obviously it helps for cramps, or at least that’s what they say,” he joked.

As Tiafoe prepares to go back to Florida for the Delray Beach Open, which begins Feb. 18, Tiafoe set a new bar for himself to cross in 2019 — reach the top 20 and play into the second weeks of Grand Slams more often. “I want to win titles like Delray and even bigger,” Tiafoe said, adding, “I know that feeling now, so it’s like why not then?”

Currently ranked a career-high No. 30 on the ATP World Tour, his ability to play well on all surfaces will determine Tiafoe’s potential for advancement. “I’m becoming more complete,” he said, adding that it was he felt he could “go in and do anything on any really given surface.”

He created buzz among tennis fans last year by beating his childhood idol Juan Martin del Potro, who was then ranked No. 10, before making his way to the Delray Beach final. Del Potro, currently No. 4 in the world, will be back at the tournament this year, along with fifth-ranked Kevin Anderson, whom Tiafoe also defeated in Australia last month.

For Tiafoe, preparing for Delray this year has meant staying in the moment and having the right people around him. “Love the people that want to support you, love the people who are there for you, because you definitely earned that right,” he said.

Spending time with people that support him was the plan for Tiafoe as he returned home to Maryland after the Australian Open to relax between tournaments. But he’s now gaining more attention at home; Capital One Arena featured him on the Jumbotron when he attended a Wizards basketball game on Saturday.

After Delray Beach, Tiafoe said he plans to compete in Mexico, Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami. In the meantime, “I’m just worried about the first round,” Tiafoe said.


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