Tiafoe is embarking on what may be a critical period of his career

February 11, 2024

Achieving the kind of stardom reserved for Grand Slam champions without being one comes with an unpublished price tag

Tiafoe is embarking on what may be a critical period of his career

Everybody loves Frances Tiafoe. We love his inspirational backstory. We love his 1,000-watt smile. We love his tip-toey walk, his curious forehand take-back, his blazing serve and the sometimes unfiltered, rambling commentary he delivers in his gravelly, basso profundo voice.

The trouble with all the love we shower on Tiafoe, and the role it has played in vaulting him into the wide cone of the cultural spotlight, is that it puts an oppressive amount of pressure on him. This is a special burden familiar to appealing outliers from any era, from Arthur Ashe to Ons Jabeur.

Some, like Ashe or Evonne Goolagong, conquer it and win Grand Slam titles.

For others, though, achieving the kind of stardom reserved for Grand Slam champions without being one comes with an unpublished price tag - and many sleepless nights. That’s why Frances Tiafoe is embarking on what may be a critical period of his career in the coming days and weeks.

Tiafoe, who hit his career-high ranking of No. 10 last June, is currently No. 14. That isn’t a huge drop, but Tiafoe won just one match - while losing six - to end 2023 after absorbing a painful loss in the US Open quarterfinals to upstart compatriot Ben Shelton. Now 26, Tiafoe sallied forth in 2024 with a new coach (the well-traveled veteran Diego Moyano) after abruptly, and somewhat mystifyingly, parting ways with the architect of his rise through 2022-23, Wayne Ferreira.

Tiafoe’s record thus far this year is just 2-2.

The top seed this week in Dallas, Tiafoe could use a few Ws at a time of year when he has enjoyed some great success. Tiafoe has earned two of his three ATP titles during the post-Australian Open swing in the U.S. His breakthrough as a pro occurred in 2018 at Delray Beach, where he recovered from a slump that threatened to leave him outside the Top 100 with a brilliant run to claim his first tour-level title. Yet Tiafoe is bypassing Delray, and a number of other ATP 250s. After Dallas, he will face potentially tough draws at the ATP 500 in Acapulco, and the Masters 1000 at Indian Wells.

That’s a pretty bold schedule, but Tiafoe is nothing if not plucky. He has made no secret of his ambition, and revels in his celebrity and the attention it brings. He’s living his best life, awash in endorsements, a frequent presence at high-profile public events, including sporting ones. He generally wears a great neon smile instead of a ball cap pulled down in front to hide his visage.

The flashpoint in Tiafoe’s rise occurred at the 2022 US Open, where he posted back-to-back wins over Rafael Nadal and Andrey Rublev, before a gallant albeit losing effort in the semifinals against eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz. Suddenly, the trendsetting New York crowd - and a gaggle of music, film and sports celebrities - took Tiafoe to their bosom. Welcome to Tiafomania, a love fest that shows no signs of abating.

Tiafoe described it best at the Washington D.C. ATP 500 (his home tournament) early last summer, after a quarterfinal loss to Dan Evans. Asked how he felt about all the adulation coming his way he replied, “It’s great. It’s unbelievable. I never felt like this playing here [before]. Everyone was taking me in, unbelievable. As soon as I get on-site, everyone is screaming, yelling. I have never had this much love playing here, ever.”

Give Tiafoe credit for appreciating the support he gets, instead of crying a river after losing, or shifting the blame for his loss onto any number of potential factors, including the obvious pressure he is under to win big. He elaborated on his heady experience before his much-hyped US Open quarterfinal clash with Shelton last summer.

“The energy is insane,” Tifoe said, following his fourth-round win over Rinky Hijikata. “The fans [are] Honey Deuce’d out. This is cool. This is cool. When you have 23,000 people come and watch two people just go to war. . . it’s pretty surreal.

“Just being a kid, a guy who grew up how I did, these fans are taking me in. Packing stadiums. Packed Louis [Armstrong Stadium] the times I’ve played. It’s been great. I think it’s great that I’ve played at [Arthur] Ashe [Stadium] at night already. Yeah, it’s a cool ride. Definitely brings out my best.”

The best went missing not long thereafter. The match with Shelton was competitive, but in retrospect it seems that the loss let some of the air out of Tiafoe’s balloon. His 3-8 singles record since then points that way, as does his coaching change. This reset may be just what Tiafoe needs. Perhaps his recent struggles will help ground him, and lead to a review of his priorities and the place he seeks at the grown-up Grand Slam table.

A comment Tiafoe made after that loss to Evans in D.C., while poor fodder for the stories celebrating Tiafoe and all the love he’s been experiencing, served as sobering reminder of the harsh reality faced by any aspiring player lucky enough to become a major figure before earning a major title.

“Every time I played, it was packed,” Tiafoe said of the stands. “People were going crazy. Even there, I felt like [it was] a Grand Slam match.

“But it’s unfortunate. I’m down. Again. This is a tournament I really want to win one day.” –Tennis.com

Tiafoe is embarking on what may be a critical period of his career