Frances Tiafoe has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reflect, step away from the sport and assess his game and his career.
Having dropped more than 30 places in the FedEx ATP Rankings in the early months of 2020, he struggled for form and confidence. But while the five-month suspension of the ATP Tour stopped many in-form stars from carrying their momentum into further events, it helped Tiafoe to break a cycle of disappointing results and find his way out of a difficult position.
“The pandemic was probably the best thing that happened to me in my career, if we are going to be frank. I was in a dark place pre-pandemic,” Tiafoe told ATPTour.com. “My ranking took a serious hit, obviously losing the quarter-finals [points] in Melbourne. It kind of saved me, because I had Miami coming up where I was defending quarter-finals [points].
“I looked at the guy in the mirror [and asked], ‘Why are you here? What are the things you need to change and what are the things you need to keep building on?’ It helped me a lot. There were a lot of deep conversations with my guys and I wouldn’t have made it to the second week of the US Open without that.”
There were many difficult questions that Tiafoe had to answer during the ATP Tour suspension. The 6’2” right-hander decided that to move forward in his career, he needed to embrace change.
“It was like, ‘Frances Tiafoe. What does that look like post-pandemic? What do you want to change? Are you going to be the same guy or are you going to add some things and change some things?’ I just wanted to be a different guy,” said Tiafoe.
After a couple of months away from the sport, Tiafoe began to miss the feeling of competition. The 2019 Australian Open quarter-finalist returned to action at the Western & Southern Open with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and he pushed former World No. 1 Andy Murray to three sets in his first match.
Despite the loss, Tiafoe took the positives out of his first performance in more than five months and overcame Andreas Seppi, John Millman and Marton Fucsovics to reach the Round of 16 in New York for the first time.
“I was so happy once [I found out that] the US Open was going to get underway,” said Tiafoe. “I couldn’t wait to get out there and I think that was why I did well. I’m at my best when I am enjoying the game and loving the game.”
As Tiafoe prepares to celebrate his 23rd birthday on 20 January, he is ready to begin a new phase of his career.
“When you first come on Tour, you are Bugs Bunny [and] just excited to be out there,” said Tiafoe. “You want to play everybody, you want to go to all the tournaments. I am young, but I feel like a veteran. I have been playing on Tour for a while, I am going on 23 now and now I know everybody. I have definitely changed a lot, it doesn’t maybe seem that way but I have definitely changed a lot.”
Having started to work with former World No. 6 Wayne Ferreira during the 2020 lockdown, part of Tiafoe’s maturation has been in the way he now approaches the game. The World No. 62 is keen to find the right balance when it comes to having fun on the court, as he aims to make his mark on the sport.
“I definitely understand that you are going to be one of the guys who is going to have fun every week and everyone loves or you are going to be a guy that everyone loves, but [also someone] they are going to see going deep in tournaments with the fans really embracing you,” said Tiafoe. “I think with me doing that, obviously with the Australia run, fans really embraced that and really got behind that. Instead of being the guy that has fun, I am trying to be the guy who is going to be legendary.”
With a quarter-final run in Delray Beach to open the year, Tiafoe will aim to build on his encouraging start to the season at the Great Ocean Road Open (Melbourne 2). After finding his way through dark times, the American is now ready for a bright and successful 2021 campaign.
“[My motivation] is at a pretty high scale,” said Tiafoe. “I’m ready to do a lot of great things in 2021.”