INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – A few days ago, American Frances Tiafoe announced he was adding former top-10 player Wayne Ferreira to his coaching team.
Wednesday, they were hard at work on the practice courts at Indian Wells.
Tiafoe has lost in the first round of four of his five ATP-level tournaments so far this season.
He did post two wins (including a solid one over countryman Tommy Paul), at the Delray Beach event.
And he has had some tough draws; getting Stan Wawrinka in the first round of Acapulco was no picnic.
Tiafoe played well overall in a tough 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 win by Wawrinka there (although not in the deciding tiebreak, for sure).
Career best just 12 months ago
When Tiafoe arrived in the desert a year ago, he was ranked No. 35 – just a few weeks off of his career high of No. 29 reached after making the Australian Open quarterfinals.
He can pick up points at the big Indian Wells event. But he has a quarterfinal at the Miami Open to defend.
Right now, he’s at No. 81 and it’s all going in the wrong direction.
He has played a few Challengers this year in the U.S., at Newport Beach and in Dallas. And he’s playing the Indian Wells Challenger this week as well, as the No. 8 seed.
Tiafoe defeated longtime friend Michael Mmoh 6-4, 6-3 in the second round, and awaits the winner between Mischa Zverev and Gregoire Barrere in the third round.
Wednesday, he was out on the practice court with Ferreira and longtime coach Zack Evenden. It looks like a very positive side that he’s reaching out for addition help to turn things around before it really becomes a thing.
He’s far too good to be ranked No. 81 in the world.
But another fairly high-profile team broke up before the start of the 2019 season. And it seems to have gone virtually unnoticed.
American Frances Tiafoe, who is at a career-high No. 29 after reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, dismissed both coach Robby Ginepri and longtime trainer Paul Kinney at the end of the 2018 season.
Tiafoe, 21, is the No. 2 ranked American behind John Isner.
Kinney, notably, had been with Tiafoe for more than three years, since he was a teenager playing the Challenger circuit.
Ginepri also had in the picture for several years, although not on a completely full-time basis as he would be on hand for the bigger events. Some of the day-to-day work fell to assistant coach Zack Evenden.
No new team in place yet
“Even though he had an obviously successful 2018, Frances made a decision to shake things up a few weeks ago. As such, he will no longer be working with either Robby Ginepri or Paul Kinney,” was the statement from his management at the end of the 2018 season.
Tiafoe traveled Down Under with Evenden, and the USTA coaches lent a hand during the Australian summer.
The plan was that Tiafoe would have a new team together following the Australian Open. But as of this week, as he plays the New York Open on a wild card as the No. 2 seed, nothing has yet been finalized.
For the Next-Gen Finals to truly be what they were designed to be, they ideally would feature all of the best 21-and-under players in the world.
But two of the marquee players are not there.
For the second straight season, the best of the bunch has understandably opted for the ATP Tour Finals next week.
Alexander Zverev came to Milan last year, for the inaugural edition, and played an exhibition to give the new exhibition a boost. But that seems to not have been in the plans this year.
And arguably the most entertaining and popular of the rest, Canadian Denis Shapovalov, begged off after a fall season during which he essentially played every single week.
That the 19-year-old was on fumes was fairly evident in those final weeks.
Shapovalov, incredibly, still has two years of eligibility left. But you know he’s hoping to be in the same boat as Zverev is sooner, rather than later.
Tsitsipas the biggest star
One player who had a monster season on the ATP Tour is in Milan. But as with Shapovalov, you could sense over the last few weeks – after he won his first career ATP Tour title in Stockholm, that Stefanos Tsitsipas also is a little wrung out.
Hopefully he will be able to muster a final reserve of energy and quickly adjust to the radically different match experience and scoring system.
On the plus side, there was no sign of the “models” who joined the young fellows on stage for last year’s draw ceremony. That didn’t go over too well, and the ATP later apologized.
Rather, they gave us … this!
Hurkacz, Munar and .. Caruana
The final group of eight features some appealing talent – notably Americans Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe.
Tiafoe’s irrepressible personality is already evident in the leadup to the event. His smile is contagious, and his game style is a crowd-pleaser.
The rest are not nearly as well-known. So the fans in Milan and watching at home will get to discover them, much the way they did a year ago.
Spain’s Jaume Munar has the full sport of the Rafael Nadal Academy behind him. And even though he arrived on the ATP Tour with everyone assuming he would be a clay-court player, he has proven more than adept on the other surfaces.
When we watched him play another Next-Gen player, Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, in the French Open qualifying, he was even serve-volleying on clay.
As for Hubert Hurkacz, he’s tall – 6-foot-5 – and reached his career best ranking of No. 79 last week before dropping six spots with the new rankings Monday.
He qualified for the last three Slams this season, losing to Marin Cilic in the second round both in Paris and at the US Open. In New York, he got just two games in three sets against the Croat.
Hurkacz retired due to “fatigue”, down in the first set of his second-round match at the Eckental Challenger last week.
He has faced the other three players in his pool group a total of once – a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Tiafoe in Washington, D.C. this summer. He has two losses on clay to Munar in the juniors.
Group A: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Jaume Munar, Frances Tiafoe, Hubert Kurkacz
Group B: Alex de Minaur, Andrey Rublev, Taylor Fritz, Liam Caruana
It’s hard to pick the stronger one. But you’d have to go with the superior top-level experience of Tsitsipas and Tiafoe in Group A.
Caruana, 20, is ranked No. 622 on the ATP Tour (down from a career high of No. 375 back in February). He won three matches in an all-Italian playoff for the local wild card – the final in five (short-version) sets.
If the experience of Quinzi a year ago is any indicator, he’ll arrive game, but a little short on legs after the hard work involved getting here.
Caruana peaked at No. 22 in the junior rankings, fully 18 years old with a January birthday (and therefore one of the oldest kids playing at the ITF level). He never did particularly well at the junior majors, but he did play most of the other players once each. He suffered a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Tsitsipas in the third round of the 2016 Australian Open juniors. a 6-1, 6-3 loss to de Minaur on clay in 2015, a three-set loss to Rublev on clay in 2014 and losses in doubles to both Fritz and Tiafoe on separate occasions.
In other words, he doesn’t come in with the same credentials as Quinzi did. So he’ll have to play above his level to surprise.
NOTE: Southern California native Tracy Austin notes that Caruana, while Italian, is very much a SoCal kid. She writes that he and Fritz grew up 20 minutes apart (Fritz in Rancho Santa Fe and Caruana in La Jolla, outside San Diego) and played many times in the juniors. She adds that Caruana moved to Texas as a young teenager.
The day session on Tuesday features Tsitsipas vs. Munar, then Fritz vs Rublev.
The night session kicks off with Tiafoe vs. Hurkacz, followed by de Minaur vs. Caruana.
The ATP has put out a couple of videos explaining the unique rules attached to this event.
One features the players.
The other features the neat graphics they’ve come up with for this year’s edition.
As well, the automatic Hawkeye line-calling system used last year will be expanded to adjudicate a host of other on-court situations.
Last year’s final featured Hyeon Chung vs. Andrey Rublev
’17 ranking: 54
Current ranking: 25
’17 ranking: 51
Current ranking: 27
’17 ranking: 37
Current ranking: 68
’17 ranking: 306
Current ranking: 149
’17 ranking: 48
Current ranking: 12
’17 ranking: 45
Current ranking: 11
’17 ranking: 65
Current ranking: 16
’17 ranking: 55
Current ranking: 109
Notable that three of the Group B players (none of whom made the 2017 final), are now in the top 16. Shapovalov and Chung have improved their rankings as well (Chung, even with much time missed due to injury).
Jared Donaldson hasn’t played since the Rogers Cup in Toronto due to knee tendonitis, which affected him long before that. Rublev missed three months, after Monte Carlo and through Wimbledon, with back issues.
You would expect plenty of meaty clashes between 20-year-old American Frances Tiafoe and 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov over the next decade, or more.
Saturday’s semifinal in Delray was, only a little surprisingly, the first.
It was the American who prevailed. And in Peter Gojowczyk of Germany, he has a beatable opponent as he plays on home soil.
The 7-5, 6-4 Tiafoe victory was entertaining, in that both players are shotmakers who like to fire up the crowd and make the highlight reels. This is a very good thing for tennis going forward. It’s … FUN.
But for Shapovalov on the night, it exposed the slight cracks in his game that he must still putty over, to take that next step.
Tiafoe pounded the lefthander’s backhand mercilessly – especially on serve.
And the errors piled on. Taking big cuts at the returns, when the serve too often comes in at 125 mph or more, requires perfect timing and extreme confidence. And it’s no coincidence that so many of the players who’ve been at the top all these years – Federer, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Murray – have incorporated a forehand bunt return into their arsenal, to at least give themselves a shot at winning points against big servers.
Shapovalov, as a lefty, needs to find a reliable equivalent on the backhand side.
His frustration was evident, and he expressed it often to his camp. But his options were few. Whenever he tried to slice backhand returns, Tiafoe was all over his own second shot and made him pay nearly every time.
It’s a conundrum he no doubt will solve, although it will be important to him not to lose the aggressiveness that drives his game. It’s a delicate balance.
In his pre-match interview on Tennis Channel with Jimmy Arias, Shapovalov vaunted his play during the week. “I think I’ve been playing extremely well off the ground this week. Last match I served extremely well, and I’ve been returning well throughout the tournament,” he said.
Maybe he jinxed himself, just a little.
Shapovalov and Tiafoe got to know each other during the Laver Cup, as both were part of the young “rest of the world” side that included Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis. They have practiced often together.
The respect between the two was very much on display.
Two years older, Tiafoe was a little more experienced. And already having a victory over Juan Martin del Potro in the tournament, and another over No. 8 seed Hyeon Chung in the quarters, he was full of confidence.
The American had to double up on Saturday, after his match with Chung was finally called off in the wee hours because of persistent rain. He was just two points from victory, after all that waiting.
Tiafoe needed five match points to wrap it up Saturday afternoon, and then returned to court some six hours later to face Shapovalov.
When it was over, Shapovalov dropped his bags at centre court to salute the crowd. It’s an endearing, sincere gesture that will do him well.
Shapovalov so close to history
For Shapovalov to win his first career title in Delray would have been a study in symmetry and significance.
Had he done it, not only would he have moved into the top 40 for the first time, he would have squeezed past Milos Raonic to become the top-ranked player in Canada.
That’s something nearly unimaginable just a year ago. Raonic was at No. 4 then. Shapovalov was ranked No. 250.
The symmetry would have come as he now heads to his next tournament in Acapulco. Shapovalov will face former top-10 player Kei Nishikori, unseeded as he returns from a wrist injury, in the first round.
Exactly 10 years ago in Delray Beach, another 18-year-old won his first career title in Delray Beach. That was Nishikori, who has won 10 more since then, reached a Grand Slam final, and a career-best ranking of No. 3 three years ago.
Tiafoe, should be able to hold his nerve and defeat Gojowczyk, a 28-year-old who has become a steady performer over the last year, will claim his first career title.
He would also improve his ranking from its current No. 91 to No. 61, one off his career best.