Grigor Dimitrov knows a thing or two about being the “next big thing.” Five years ago, Dimitrov was the fresh-faced twenty-something who seemed like he would disrupt the hegemony otherwise known as the Big Four in men’s tennis. With a game style crafted in hopes of mimicking one of the greatest of all time (Roger Federer), Dimitrov’s career has hit moderately lofty highs and even more dizzying low periods made darker by the expectations his groundstrokes created.
Since his 2014 breakthrough at Wimbledon, Dimitrov has been able to reach the semifinals of a major only once. It is no wonder that his loss to Frances Tiafoe at the Australian Open left him a bit taken aback.
“The result is obvious. It’s strange for sure. I’m a bit lost for words right now coming right after the match,” he said. “All credit to him. Fought well, played well.”
With the mortality of the Big 4 era inching closer, this was supposed to be Dimitrov’s time to shine with a great draw to the semifinals. Instead, for the second year in a row, he has lost to a younger and more inexperienced player at his best major.
But let’s say more about the man who took him out.
Before there was Alexander Zverev or Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe used to hold the distinct honor of being the youngest player in the top 100. Lanky and with a smile as big as his forehand, Tiafoe’s technique was described in words that hoped to make “funky” sound affectionate. With a background worthy of a movie plot, his family’s history as immigrants from Sierra Leone striving in America was researched and heralded as miraculous. His father worked in construction and as a janitor for a tennis center in Maryland, making less in his yearly salary than some parents paid in lessons at that center for their children.
Lately with his success, Tiafoe is getting asked, “Why him?” Against the presence so many factors that could have readily discouraged him, why is it that Frances Tiafoe seems to persevere? After his first five-set victory as a professional against Andreas Seppi, Frances said he wanted this moment “bad, and he wanted it now.” He has achieved his goal of helping his family become more financially secure. Now Tiafoe says he’s playing for himself: “It’s how bad do you want to be successful, essentially.”
Even though Tiafoe’s story is very different from his predecessors in tennis, such as Andy Roddick, James Blake, or even Donald Young, Tiafoe has compiled an outstanding junior career and a-now rising professional career which has culminated in his first major quarterfinal. Tiafoe is no longer just a feel-good story for tennis media, but the second-highest-ranked American man.
It’s time for American tennis media to adjust to that notion as well, because it was criminal that ESPN’s TV producers chose not to give Tiafoe’s round of 16 match more airplay. Tiafoe was only the third american man this decade to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. More importantly, he has been embraced by the Australian crowd. Loud chants of “Tiafoe! Tiafoe!” have kept the fans engaged as his wins get bigger. With genuine and candid appreciation of his achievements, Tiafoe’s excitement could inspire many to pick up a tennis racquet, but if he’s not being shown at home, it is all a lost opportunity.
It would be a shame, when Tiafoe has shown us that any limitation can be overcome with the right mindset.