Last night at the Citi Open in Washington, Francis Tiafoe played his first tour-level main draw match. For a 16-year-old with almost no professional experience, he put on a good show, making Evgeny Donskoy work hard for his 6-4 6-4 victory.
Tiafoe is one of a few young American men viewed as rising stars. He doesn’t have the professional experience of Stefan Kozlov or Jared Donaldson, but he has nonetheless racked up some impressive feats in the last eight months, claiming the title at the Orange Bowl in December and another big win at the Easter Bowl in April.
His game, as viewers discovered last night, is a work in progress. He lit up the radar gun with both serves and forehands, but neither was steady enough to avoid getting broken by Donskoy three times. His backhand, the less showy but more consistent half of his ground game, was sufficiently solid to keep him in points, but it aside from a couple of down-the-line bullets, it was rarely enough to win them.
Both serve and forehand are, at this stage of his development, very complicated shots. His serve is a bit jerky, and his second serve is particularly erratic. A more offensive kick serve would do wonders for his service game–he won barely 40% of second-serve points yesterday.
The forehand is an even bigger problem. It’s easy to get fooled by the occasional big winner–he did hit some sensational shots from that wing last night. The bigger picture, though, is that his big, not-very-fluid windup prevents him from hitting the effective rallying shots that are absolutely necessary to compete at this level. Compared to top-100 players, Donskoy is not a particularly tough test, and Tiafoe hit 19 unforced errors from that side alone. That’s 20% of his total forehands in the match–double the tour-average rate of forehand unforced errors. They also accounted for one-third of all the points he lost.
It could have been worse. Donskoy, whether because he feared the forehand or because he stuck with familiar patterns, tended to rally back to Tiafoe’s backhand. That shot is far smoother, simpler, and much, much more consistent. While he didn’t try for nearly as much off that wing, he did hit four winners–and only four unforced errors.
He tended to play far behind the baseline, so it was a rare point that displayed other aspects of his game. In the second set, he opted for a few more slice backhands, a shot he seemed to have a decent feel for. He hit one very slick backhand drop shot for a winner, but more often when he ventured inside the baseline, he didn’t appear to have a natural sense for smart, reasonably-high-percentage plays.
It’s important to keep all this in perspective, though. Tiafoe is the youngest man to play an ATP main-draw match this year–nine months younger than Alexander Zverev, for instance. Donskoy was his first top-300 opponent and last night was only his 15th professional match. If he didn’t look particularly poised rushing between points, I think we can let it slide.
As strong a player as Tiafoe is for his age, the inconsistency of both serve and forehand will likely keep him out of the spotlight for another few years. Unlike Zverev and Borna Coric, he won’t be challenging top-50 players before his 18th birthday. Still, there are a lot of good qualities to build on, and when he hits his twenties, he could well be part of the next great generation of American players on the ATP tour.