Playing in front of a crowd vociferously and unanimously supporting his opponent was a new experience that “didn’t feel great,” Tiafoe said, but there were plenty of positives to draw from the week. His semifinal performance, a 6-2, 6-3 thrashing of 11th-ranked Pablo Carreño Busta, was especially impressive. He also saved three match points in an opening-round victory over Tennys Sandgren.
“It was an unbelievable week, and I hope I can just keep it going,” Tiafoe said.
He has been considered one of the greatest prospects in his generation from a young age, but since turning pro in 2015 he has achieved relatively little at the tour level.
He drew some attention for five-set losses in the first round of the United States Open against John Isner in 2016 and Roger Federer in 2017, but coming into the 2018 season, Tiafoe had won only nine of his 38 career main-draw matches on the ATP Tour. Only one of those victories came against a top-30 opponent.
Tiafoe has 15 wins already this season, including six against top-30 opponents. He reached his first tour quarterfinal at the New York Open in February, and won his first title in Delray Beach, Fla., one week later.
The surge seemed unlikely after the first month of the season. After going winless in two tournaments in Australia, Tiafoe returned home to Maryland downtrodden.
“You get a lot of things going in your head when you’re young and you haven’t really experienced it,” said Tiafoe, who is ranked 56th, a career-high. “It’s not like you can just turn it on.”
Going back to his roots allowed Tiafoe to reorient his mind-set and his season.
“I went home and really recuperated,” he said. “Being back home is a great thing for me, being with my family, being with friends, being with people that have got your back no matter what. I had some deep talks with everyone, and their support meant a lot to me and it was something that I needed to hear.”
Tiafoe decided to take part of his support system with him on the road full-time, adding his friend Zack Evenden, a 26-year-old Briton who played collegiate tennis at Florida A&M, to his traveling team to complement the work of his primary coach, Robby Ginepri.
“It’s the best thing I’ve done, the best decision I’ve made, having him here,” Tiafoe said. “He keeps it real with me. He keeps the tour fun for me.
“At first we were just friends, but now he’s definitely taken on a coaching role under Robby. Robby comes to the bigger events, but Zack’s there each and every day. I credit all my success to him.”
That stability has helped ground Tiafoe, who admits he has “had a lot of things going on” previously, including changing agencies twice in his young career.
Evenden said that a key for Tiafoe had been learning to take “ownership” of his tennis and measure his own gifts.
“He’s understanding that he doesn’t have to play his best tennis, highlight-reel tennis, in every match just to get wins,” Evenden said. “He’s starting to get comfortable on the tour and realized that he doesn’t have to have the match of his life just to get a win.”
Tiafoe’s comfort level on the tour shows itself in other ways.
As he returned to the clubhouse after the final Sunday, Tiafoe turned up the stereo in a tournament car and gave a brief impromptu performance of OutKast’s “The Way You Move” to an audience of charmed volunteers.
“It’s good to bring a different feel to tennis, and that’s what I feel like I bring,” he said. “I bring a different feel, a different swagger to tennis. I’m very easygoing, and very nonchalant, it looks like, when I’m out there — I’ve got a little strut, and I like that.
“There’s no reason trying to fit in: Just be you,” he added. “That was the biggest thing for me, just being me, and finding what works for me. I have that balance of having fun — because I can need to have a ton of fun — but also locking it in at times. I’ve found the perfect balance for me right now, and I’m being mature and growing as a tennis player.”