Frances Tiafoe – Breathing the Air of Super Stardom

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

NOLE ALERT: Novak Djokovic is the prohibitive Australian Open favorite. He’s won there nine times. After all his problems last year, he dearly wants to win, and Nick Kyrgios, whom he could have met in the quarterfinals, has withdrawn. Nole has a sweet draw. His first round opponent, Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena, is ranked No. 71. 

But Novak is struggling with a hamstring issue which may well be more significant than many believe. He delayed his Monday practice session and had a light workout behind closed doors. 

Nonetheless, Inside Tennis noted that there was plenty of giggling and chatter, but Novak only hit lightly for twenty minutes. And there was little running or exertion on his hamstring. After all he’s been through, many in tennis hope Nole can win his 22nd Slam. But hamstring injuries can be hobbling. Then again many consider him the GOAT and goats are tough. Nole told Serbian reporters that all was good and he would see them on the court soon.

THE TURNING POINT OPEN: Some are retired, a few are hurt, others are pregnant. All of these stars are missing: Federer, Serena, Venus, Nick Kyrgios, Naomi Osaka, Carlos Alcaraz and Ash Barty. And, in case you’ve shifted all your attention to pickleball, it’s clear that tennis’s talent base is shifting towards emerging youngsters. That’s why some have called the Australian Open the Turning Point Open.

BREATHING THE AIR OF SUPER STARDOM: When ESPN asked Coco Gauff about Frances Tiafoe’s colorful, bold, abstract Nike outfit, she replied, “He has a lot going on. He’s never quiet, he’s always loud…and I feel the outfits represent that – loud and proud…And that’s Big Foe.”

When reflecting on the increasingly mature Tiafoe, who’s seeded No. 16 in Melbourne and scored a dicey first-round win over German Daniel Altmaier, Prakash Amritraj commented, “You’re not seeing spurts of 10 to 15 minutes…where he spews a bunch of errors. Now he’s a little bit tighter. He’s using his entire dynamic athletic range…He’s one of the best athletes we have…[Plus] in the off-season he was rolling around a lot with high society and a lot of celebrities. He was taking in a lot of events and it looked good on him. And the fact that he’s so comfortable with the air that you have to breathe when you’re a superstar bodes well for his tennis.”

NO MORE COCO FLUFF: When judging the long problematic serve of young Coco Gauff, Martina Navraliova observed that her problem wasn’t just that she double faulted, but that, “Her second serve was a fluff ball. Now when Coco hits a double fault, it’s a good double fault.”

GO FIGURE: Gauff and Czech Katerina Siniakova had the honor to play the first match on Rod Laver Arena…Roger Federer declined to play doubles this year at the Aussie Open…The only past Aussie Open champs in the women’s draw faced each other in the first round. Vika Azarenka, who won in 2012 and 2013 beat American Sofia Kenin, who won in 2020.

DON’T MESS WITH A MAN’S TOOLS: A ball boy inadvertently took the wrong racket from Rafa Nadal’s bench area. He ran off to the stringer’s room with the racket that Rafa was actually using. Nadal was not pleased. He told the ump, “I need the racket back…This is not the [right] one. I need the dampener and everything.” Rafa was surprisingly testy on court as he also complained about the bright lights and that ball kids couldn’t give him his towels.

LOVING RAFA: One Rafa fan on twitter didn’t hold back his praise of his man, tweeting, “With half a foot asleep, his abdomen half touched, his knees destroyed and being…months away from turning 37, [he’s] melting boys 15 years younger on a physical level and better enduring the heat and physical demands of five-set matches.”

Rafa had lost six of his seven most recent matches. But then the defending champion scored a tough, confidence-building win over Brit Jack Draper. After the win, Nadal said, “I was humble enough to accept that there were going to be a little bit of ups and downs during the match.” Rafa has now won 22 of his last 24 five-set matches.

WHAT’S A TENNIS TOURNAMENT WITHOUT A GOOD CONSPIRACY THEORY? Deep into the Rafa-Jack Draper match, a bunch of tennis balls suddenly went dead and had to be sidelined. But why? Commentator Patrick McEnroe explained, “Conspiracy theories are everywhere.”

ANGLO-AMERICAN POPCORN: The two young darlings of American and British tennis – No. 7 seed Coco Gauff and 2021 US Open winner Emma Raducanu – will meet in the second round.

BLAME IT ON BROOMFIELD: After the twittersphere was critical of Frances Tiafoe’s psychedelic Nike outfit, Frances’s girlfriend, Anya Broomfield, tweeted, “So shocked that y’all don’t like the fit! We had a fashion show to see which fit looked the best last night and I absolutely loved it..so y’all can blame me.”

JUST WONDERING: Who’s more of a favorite – Djokovic or Swiatek…Will we go into the French Open in May with two men, Novak and Rafa, who’ve each won 22 Grand Slams…The United Cup last week was an important but not a crucial event, so why did Iga cry when she lost to Jessica Pegula 6-2, 6-2?…Two-time Slam winner Garbine Muguruza was No. 3 at this time last year. Why has the two-time Slam winner fallen to No. 73?

MORE MOTIVATED THAN EVER? Time and again Serena was eager to win a major as she tried to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slam singles titles. And in 2021 Djokovic dearly wanted to prevail at the US Open to claim the coveted Calendar Grand Slam. But we wonder if any player in recent memory has had more motivation to win a Slam than Djokovic, who was deported from Australia a year ago and has a chance to tie Nadal with 22 majors at this year’s Aussie Open.

A GOOD DAY FOR THE MAFIA: Sunday in Buffalo, the “Bills Mafia” fan base was thrilled when their NFL team eliminated the Miami Dolphins from the playoffs. And many in the gritty city (which has gone through a recent series of traumas, including a mass shooting, a brutal snowstorm and Damar Hamlin’s near-death experience) were pleased when the city’s best tennis player, Jessica Pegula, easily dismissed Romanian Jaqueline Cristian 6-0, 6-1. BTW: former Australian doubles star Casey Dellacqua picked Pegula to win the Aussie Open.

MOTHERHOOD MATTERS: There’s a long history of Aussie Open champions becoming mothers. Think Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Serena, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters, Vika Azarekna, Li Na and Caroline Wozniaki.

Tweeter Bastien Fachan noted that, except for Sofia Kenin, every Aussie Open women’s champion since 2016 has become a mother or is now pregnant: Angie Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Naomi Osaka, Serena and Ash Barty. Lest we forget, Serena won in 2017 while pregnant.

BEWARE EVICTION NOTICES: When reflecting on the possible treatment of Djokovic by fans, Aussie Open chief Craig Tiley said, “Fans won’t be evicted if they boo, but they will be evicted if they create an unpleasant and disruptive environment for other fans.”

PREDICTION OF THE DAY: In the context of the Davis Cup losing its billion-dollar backer Kosmos, Australian Open CEO Craig Tiley said the newly created United Cup “will become the preeminent team event.” 

NOT A HAPPY HOMECOMING: Cam Norrie was reared in New Zealand and always wanted to win in Auckland in front of his many fans. But he fell in the finals to Richard Gasquet, who now remarkably is France’s No. 1 player.

A HIGH-FIVE THAT REVEALED HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED – OR NOT: On Martin Luther King Day we recall that in 2001 Lleyton Hewitt was embattled in a close US Open match against the 21-year-old African American James Blake on a court named for the African American jazzman Louis Armstrong. Hewitt thought he was the victim of an errant foot-fault call from an African-American linesman and went ballistic. “Look at him [the linesman,]” Hewitt barked at the chair ump.

“Tell me what the similarity is [with Blake]. I want him off the court…Look at what he’s done.”

Lleyton was accused of being racist. The Aussie denied the charge and young, diplomatic Blake soon diffused the brouhaha.

Fast forward 22 years to Monday at the Aussie Open where Blake was the ESPN commentator on a marathon Frances Tiafoe match. When Tiafoe at last won, the charismatic, elated son of two migrants from Sierra Leone gave a triumphant, sweeping high-five to the black chair umpire who broke strict protocols and beamed with delight.

LOVING LEFTIES: Left-handed Brit Jack Draper tested the greatest lefty of all time, Rafa Nadal, on Rod Laver Arena that is named for the greatest lefthander of the 20th century.

MOVE THE ENTIRE WTA TOUR TO AUSTRALIA? Madison Keys, who’s back into the top ten, prevailed over Anna Blinkova, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. In the past two years, Madison Keys is 17-2 in Australia.

QUOTEBOOK: 

“It was a train wreck,” John McEnroe on Djokovic’s deportation last year.

“Even if you have 22 majors, you get tight.” ESPN on Nadal

CALIFORNIA’S CIVIL WAR: In a battle of two California-based Asian Americans, Northern California native Mackie McDonald, 27, beat San Diego’s 21-year-old Brandon Nakashima, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 1-6, 6-7 (10), 6-4. Mackie had to be thrilled that he prevailed. Five times he’s lost in Slams after being up by two sets. But he probably isn’t too thrilled that now he has to play the veteran from Majorca named Rafa.

CARRYING THE AMERICAN FLAG? Inside Tennis asked Coco Gauff what it’s like for her and Jessica Pegula to carry the flag for America now that Serena and Venus are no longer on top. She replied, “What Serena and Venus have done is on another level. It’s very hard to feel like you belong on that level … or you should take over the mantle they held. If Serena only won two Slams, maybe I’d feel I’m a bit pressured…Jess and I are going to start with one. Yes, we feel a little bit of pressure being the top American women now but they have GOAT status.”

YOUTH WILL HAVE ITS DAY: Coco Gauff’s high-profile win drew much attention. But two little-known teen qualifiers also advanced: Russia’s 18-year-old Diana Shnaider, who is slated for North Carolina State, will next face Maria Sakkari and China’s 17-year-old Jerry Shang, who won the 2021 San Diego ITF Junior International Open, beat Fresno’s Ethan Quinn. The first Chinese man to ever win a round at the Aussie Open will next face Tiafoe.

Also reporting: Vinay Venkatesh and Steve Pratt

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