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Time to Come Up

Tennis’s 16-year-old phenom Francis Tiafoe faces the future.

Wajid Syed wasn’t welcome on the court, so he stood beneath an enormous tree next to a mass of shrubs and silently peered through a gate locked by a rusty chain, watching Francis Tiafoe. Sixteen years old and one of the best junior tennis players in the world, Tiafoe was training on P15 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a secluded court not far from Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was just before noon on Tuesday, August 19, the opening day of the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, and it was already sweltering. Tiafoe, a wild-card recipient, was set to play his first match the next day. That morning, he had participated in an intense hitting session with Mitchell Frank, the former NCAA champion out of the University of Virginia; now he played with Collin Altamirano, a lanky, highly regarded prospect from California. Court time was scarce, so they shared the court with two other players, including Andrea Collarini, a 22-year-old Argentine who has been ranked in the top 200. But Syed, an in-house lawyer and agent for Roc Nation Sports, had his eyes only on Tiafoe. The agent stood in the inadequate shade, sweating, with a bag slung over his right shoulder. Inside was a little gift.

Syed has been watching Tiafoe for some time. Everyone in the tennis world has — but Syed has been watching with a purpose; there’s something he wants from Tiafoe, and something he wants to offer. Even while those around Tiafoe insist that school, possibly even college, is the player’s first priority, Syed, 35 years old, is convinced otherwise. He wants Tiafoe to turn pro, and soon. He had already helped arrange for Tiafoe to go to his first live concert, in early July at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. He also invited Tiafoe’s parents, who had been given little control over their son’s nascent tennis career; Alphina Tiafoe had seen her son play competitively for the first time just weeks earlier, at the BB&T Open in Atlanta. Syed said they could invite whomever they wanted to the concert. Along with their family, they brought Misha Kouznetsov, Tiafoe’s coach at the Junior Tennis Champions Center; and Kouznetsov’s wife, Jennifer; as well as Hamzat Saba, Tiafoe’s teacher at JTCC; and Saba’s wife, Haajar Celestin. They were informed that their presence was at the special request of Jay Z, who invited them to meet him backstage.

Tiafoe sat down across from Jay Z, who was dressed for the performance in two gold chains and a Givenchy black-and-white American flag T-shirt. The room fell silent as the musician made his pitch. Jay Z explained what he and Tiafoe had in common: a poverty-stricken upbringing, a compelling personal narrative, and, most of all, prodigious talent. Jay Z encouraged Tiafoe to keep working hard and stay humble. Nervously, and maybe out of necessity, Tiafoe steered the conversation away from his backstory to tennis. According to one person in the room, Jay Z seemed impressed as Tiafoe spoke briefly but with passion about his craft and his goals. Jay Z went on to explain that Roc Nation Sports doesn’t recruit just anyone; Tiafoe was special. (As if to prove the point, Beyoncé walked in, wearing the fishnet mask she wore for the show’s opening number, “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” and warmly greeted Tiafoe’s entourage.) Tiafoe later bragged to friends, “We got pretty tight.” In fact, he’d seemed to others almost too nervous to speak.

Roc Nation Sports, which launched a partnership with CAA Sports in April 2013, reps athletes including Robinson Cano, Skylar Diggins, Victor Cruz, and Kevin Durant. If Roc Nation Sports and Tiafoe come to an agreement, he would become the agency’s first tennis player. Jay Z has long been a tennis fan. He has been to Wimbledon and Roland Garros, and he is said to love everything about Rafael Nadal, who turned pro at 15 and was winning majors by 19. (Jay Z and a pregnant Beyoncé famously had date night at the 2011 U.S. Open men’s final between Rafa and Novak Djokovic.) Roc Nation isn’t just pursuing Tiafoe for his talent, though. Tiafoe’s personal charisma and the improbable circumstances of his success make his marketing potential obvious. His potential as a pro player is obvious, too, which makes for tensions between those who surround Tiafoe — and, it’s clear, tensions within Tiafoe himself. When I met Tiafoe in New York after his training session, I asked him if he’d been flattered by the attention from Jay Z. “It doesn’t really matter who I turn pro with,” he said, stealing a brief, approval-seeking glance at his coach Kouznetsov. “What matters is where I take my tennis.” As he spoke, I noticed the Roc Nation snapback — the gift from Syed — perched backward on his head.

Tiafoe is still a prospect, a kid — a promise, not a sure thing. But as a junior tennis player, he has had outstanding success and come very close to even more. After he won the 2013 Orange Bowl, considered a fifth slam for juniors, he has met high expectations with mixed results. Tiafoe was the top seed of the 2014 Junior French Open, but he was embarrassed in the second round. At Wimbledon’s boys’ tournament, he fell in the third round to eventual champion Noah Rubin, another top American junior. Tiafoe lost to Rubin again in the quarterfinals of the USTA Boys’ 18 Nationals. At this year’s U.S. Open, Tiafoe repeatedly showed why he has earned so much attention — but also why he has room to grow.

Tiafoe is just beginning to see what he can do on the senior levels in a sport in which many athletes in recent years have been reaching their prime at older ages and having longer careers. (Roger Federer is 33 years old — more than twice Tiafoe’s age.) He is being given rare opportunities. At the French Open, Jay Berger, head of men’s tennis for the United States Tennis Association, even set up a practice session between Nadal and Tiafoe, who returned to hit again at Nadal’s request. The rare opportunities put him under rare pressure.

The USTA is so optimistic about Tiafoe’s talent that it extended a wild card to the 16-year-old into the U.S. Open qualifying tournament. Patrick McEnroe, the USTA’s former general manager of player development, was blunt. “The message,” he told me in August, “is to go and compete your butt off.” Tiafoe’s coach, Kouznetsov, was thrilled when he learned Tiafoe’s application had been accepted. But Tiafoe’s own joy was more tempered. He had hoped to play in the singles draw in New York along with his best friend, Michael Mmoh, the 14th-ranked junior in the world. (Tiafoe is ranked fifth.) Tiafoe and Mmoh were both “shitting their pants” as they waited to hear whether they’d be offered wild cards. They were both devastated when Mmoh was denied.1


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“The fact that Francis got it and I didn’t doesn’t bother me at all,” Mmoh told me. Tiafoe and Mmoh were later given a wild card to the men’s doubles main draw. After winning an entertaining, straight-sets win under the lights (with Nick Bollettieri and a group of agent-looking types watching), Tiafoe and Mmoh lost to doubles specialists Scott Lipsky and Rajeev Ram, 6-1, 6-4.

In the first round of qualifying, on August 20, Tiafoe faced Tatsuma Ito, a 26-year-old who is Japan’s third-highest-ranked player. (The highest-ranked, Kei Nishikori, was the 2014 U.S. Open runner-up.) Tiafoe took the court to polite applause under the lights on Court 17, a small show court that served as a de facto center court for qualifying. Wearing an ensemble Adidas sent for the occasion — a charcoal shirt, black shorts, and black-and-white sneakers — Tiafoe looked sleek. Ito, meanwhile, who has been ranked as high as no. 60 and was playing in his third Open, looked like he was all business. Ito was the heavy favorite, but Tiafoe quickly went up a double break by using a mix of well-placed serves, a bevy of deep, heavy groundstrokes, and deft touch at the net. When a teardrop backhand volley landed in at 3-1, the crowd gasped, then exploded. Tiafoe calmly walked back to the baseline. Ito, however, clawed back into the set, pressuring the more inexperienced player into some nervy errors. With set point at 6-5, Tiafoe mishit a forehand that shot up 100 feet in the air. Ito won a tight tiebreak, 8-6, closing out the first set in little more than an hour. But Tiafoe didn’t let his disappointment distract him. He broke Ito’s serve early again in the second set, settled into his own, and won the second set, 6-4, before Ito pulled out the third set, 6-3, and therefore the match. Tiafoe walked off the court the loser, but with confidence. “I thought overall I was the better player today, but he played a couple of points here and there better than I did,” Tiafoe told me afterward as we sat on the shuttle headed from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center back to midtown Manhattan. “He’s more experienced and I think that’s why he was able to squeeze this one out. If I keep this up, I think maybe I can have a great future.” Tiafoe turned his attention to his phone, preoccupied by texts coming in from people who’d watched him play on TV.

Tiafoe hasn’t won a main-draw match on the ATP Tour yet, but every loss only seems to give him more assurance that he’s ready to turn pro. His debut happened only in July, at the BB&T Open in Atlanta. He won his first match against Benjamin Balleret, 6-4, 6-2, in the qualifying tournament, but lost in the second round on a third-set tiebreak to a journeyman from New Zealand named Michael Venus. “[Venus] was lucky to get out of that one,” Tiafoe told me in July. Tiafoe received a wild card into the main draw of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., where he lost, 6-4, 6-4, to Evgeny Donskoy, a 24-year-old Russian who has teetered around 100th in the world.

These opportunities — matches under lights against players like Ito and Donskoy, grown men playing for their livelihoods — are what will determine Tiafoe’s potential as a pro. It was not Atlanta or New York, but his hometown Washington, D.C., at his main-draw debut, that made him feel like he could be a star. “Walking on the court,” Tiafoe told reporters, “the crowd started going crazy. I almost cried.”

I first met Tiafoe this summer in a side office at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where he has trained since he was a child. I recognized him immediately, but he looked older than he’d appeared in pictures from even a year ago, and he was taller than I’d imagined. He was surrounded by a group of chattering little tykes carrying tennis bags as big as their bodies. They followed his every move.

The JTCC has been home to Tiafoe since he was even younger than those kids — at times, literally a home. He was only 1 when his father, Constant, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, began working as a day laborer on a construction crew that built the facility in 1999. When the new club was complete, Constant was hired as the custodian. Tiafoe began playing at about 4, his natural feel for the sport honed in part by making good use of early, unlimited access to the court. Before and after his group lessons, he could often be spotted working on his serve or hitting ball after ball against a wall. On many nights, Francis and his twin brother, Franklin, slept in an extra storage room at JTCC with their father, whose job it was to open and close the tennis center’s doors. That fact has made him something of a cult hero in tennis circles.

Accounts of Constant’s hiring and the club’s decision to let Francis and Franklin take lessons for free generally describe them as a reward for Constant’s dependability and discipline. “He had a terrific attitude,” Ken Brody, the club’s financier, told the Washington Post’s Liz Clarke earlier this year. The truth is that day laborers, who are disproportionately African or Hispanic immigrants, often work in dangerous conditions for long hours and little pay with no health insurance. Constant probably earned the job — and the court time and instruction given to Francis and Franklin. It is hard to place limits on what compensation is deserved for the kind of strenuous, underpaid work demanded of a day laborer. And yet, Constant has called the job, which he held for a decade, “the blessing of a lifetime.” Constant has been a major influence on Francis’s life; for stretches, he was essentially a single father. But he hasn’t had much say over his son’s career, at least until now. Several agencies took him aside between his son’s training sessions and matches in New York to speak to him directly. Syed in particular has been careful to include Constant and Alphina, explaining how the process of turning pro would work.

Constant Tiafoe will do well for his sacrifice, no matter how much higher his son’s star rises. In spite of the early attention, Francis Tiafoe is well adjusted and almost unusually well mannered. He’s sociable but will stand silently for his turn to speak if two adults are already in conversation. He seems almost abashed — but also clearly excited — to acknowledge the attention he has received. After Djovokic and Andy Murray spent time with Tiafoe at the BNP Paribas Open at Madison Square Garden this past year, he was flattered to notice that both were “extremely nice” to him. He added that when he ran into Djokovic at Wimbledon, the no. 1 player in the world took the time to compliment him on a win in the junior tournament. “He’s like, ‘I saw you won today, great job.’ I’m thinking, like, Did you really look at the live scores of my match?” Tiafoe told me. “I felt like …” Tiafoe stopped to find the right word. “Someone.”

On his 14th birthday, Tiafoe beat Mmoh, 6-3, 6-3, in the Aegon Junior International Teen Tennis 14-and-under tournament in Bolton, England. Shortly after that, he won the 2012 Les Petits As, a prestigious junior tournament in France. In 2013, Tiafoe became the youngest champion of the Orange Bowl, the prestigious international junior tournament whose past winners include Federer and Andy Roddick. By then, he had already been on the front page of the New York Times.

The Junior Tennis Champions Center’s profile in the national tennis conversation has increased as Tiafoe has continued to win. He is probably the world’s most famous junior tennis player, and while JTCC has produced quality players in Denis Kudla, a former world no. 3 junior who cracked the top 100 last summer, and Mitchell Frank, the NCAA champion from UVa, Jay Z’s company is in no rush to represent either of them in contract negotiations with equipment and apparel sponsors. The JTCC has given Tiafoe significant financial support; Marco Impeduglia, JTCC’s program manager, said it estimates Tiafoe is the beneficiary of an annual $100,000 investment. Some insiders dispute this figure, pointing to the USTA’s long-term financial assistance to Tiafoe and that of private donors. (The JTCC itself is a major beneficiary of the USTA’s largesse.) People have been more and more vocal about just who is backing Tiafoe financially. Appearing on CNBC to talk the business of the U.S. Open, ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert declared that Tiafoe was being backed by a “huge, huge!” hedge funder. Business Insider uncovered the name of Pershing Square Capital CEO Bill Ackman. “[Tiafoe] has a very compelling life story and he’s super-talented. He’s a good kid,” Ackman told Business Insider’s Julia La Roche. “I’m in a position to be able to help people, and he’s the kind of guy you want to back.” In response, Ray Benton, the club’s CEO, and JTCC gave a statement to Business Insider. “I’m most appreciative for Bill for supporting Francis and JTCC. We’re dependent on the generosity of supporters like Bill to give aid to our youngsters who have been vetted to prove that they have a real financial need,” Benton said. Tiafoe’s training and travel is paid for under the theory that he brings notoriety to the club — and attracts legions of young players whose parents, knowing Tiafoe’s story, arrive at JTCC’s doors with checks in hand. The hope, Impeduglia told me, is that when Tiafoe turns pro, he will continue to train there. But he didn’t sound very confident. As it happens, the USTA is building a new, $60 million state-of-the-art facility in the Lake Nona area of Orlando.

While Impeduglia maintains there’s no financial gain for JTCC when Tiafoe goes pro, Benton has involved himself not only in Tiafoe’s tennis career but in granting access to the athlete and his parents. There is friction between Benton and some close to Tiafoe. When I reached Benton by phone and mentioned Tiafoe’s trip to meet Jay Z, he said, “I’m not his father, I don’t control his life. It’s not any of my business.” Then he hung up.

The fact that Tiafoe is African American is not incidental to the interest in him. The USTA has made it a mission to increase access to tennis to kids of all backgrounds, and it has committed significant funding and resources to doing so — if only because of the sad state of American men’s tennis right now. (No American men made the second week of the U.S. Open.) “For about 15 to 20 years, there was a constant influx of great champions,” Patrick McEnroe said. “At the same time, tennis became bigger and more popular in other parts of the world, and coaching and training and development improved, too. We never really had to think about it much as a nation. Today, we have a more systematic, more structured approach to developing players. In the past, it happened organically.” And in fact, a young crop of American juniors and young pros is starting to show success. Several of them are African American. Still, there is a sense that they are anomalies. Tiafoe knows better than anyone the pressure that was put on Donald Young, who was once touted as a major prospect on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and who has become a respectable top-50 player. The expectations are different, and so are the presumptions. Despite the differences in their looks and demeanors, people inevitably want to compare Tiafoe to the black French player Gaël Monfils.

The pressure is not just to win, but to represent the changing culture of tennis — an impossible challenge for a young athlete in a sport where divisions are persistent. Tiafoe seems to understand his role in this; he couldn’t help but notice that nearly half the crowd watching him play at U.S. Open qualifying was black. “I’m pretty close with a majority of the black tennis players,” Tiafoe told me. “Me and Mmoh are pretty tight, we talk almost every day. I talk to [Tornado] Alicia [Black] quite a bit. I’m tight with Sloane [Stephens], Sachia [Vickery], Franckie Abanda, Vicky Duval … we’re all pretty close and I think that’s good because there’s not many of us out here.” He said “many of us” quietly, as if he were saying something wrong.

The USTA has a strong interest in Tiafoe’s success, putting a picture of him in the middle of its brochure promoting young players. But Tiafoe’s success only reinforces how far the sport has to go before it is truly an egalitarian system, both racially and economically. The JTCC’s website advertises instruction for advanced players with the words, “BECOME THE NEXT FRANCIS TIAFOE.” The price tag: $29,150 a year.

In 2012, JTCC decided that Tiafoe should be coached by Frank Salazar in addition to Misha Kouznetsov. The decision took Misha and his wife, Jennifer, by surprise. Misha was diplomatic when I asked him about it, but Jennifer, who is not a JTCC employee, was less so. “It’s not a great thing. [Because] we’re just not sure that everyone has his best interests at heart.”

Salazar is JTCC’s senior director of high performance, and the PR firm that set up my interview with Tiafoe sat me down with Salazar first. (Afterward, I was asked if I “needed to or wanted to” sit down with Kouznetsov.) A former winner of the Orange Bowl and Easter Bowl, Salazar was once ranked the no. 1 14-and-under junior in the world and played collegiate tennis at Clemson. When I stumbled over Salazar’s name in conversation with McEnroe, he made it clear that he knew exactly who Salazar was. In the past, Salazar admitted that he didn’t pay Tiafoe too much attention, not making much of the younger player’s tendency, for instance, to mimic the older children’s practice routines. “Oh, it’s just Francis,” he told the Washington Post. “He’s here every day.” He told me, though, that his absence in Tiafoe’s early training was because he was busy traveling with Frank and Kudla.

Tiafoe hesitated when I asked him how he had developed in his time with Salazar. “I got stronger, I would say. My forehand got a lot better.” Then he paused. “There’s also my other coach, Misha. He’s my longtime coach. I’ve been with him since I was, like, 8. So I would say I have, like, two coaches.” Tiafoe seemed uncomfortable with the question, or at least uncomfortable with how he’d answered it. He looked over at the spokeswoman as if to say “A little help here?” but she was focused on her iPhone.

I found Kouznetsov between two outdoor courts. His sun-kissed face bore the weariness of a new father. (His son, Ivan, is 14 months.) His blond hair is in a state of perpetual dishevelment, and he tousles it when he’s nervous or thinking. Almost immediately, the hat came off and he started massaging his head. The first thing he wanted to know was whether Tiafoe acknowledged him in our interview.

Kouznetsov is a product of the Soviet tennis machine — and of his father’s single-minded determination. “He made me play,” Kouznetsov told Voice of Russia in 2013. “He taped a racket to my hand when I was very little, a baby.” Kouznetsov’s father would toss him balls to hit against the wall. Kouznetsov rose in the cutthroat junior ranks in Russia and then moved to the United States, where he enrolled at Fort Lauderdale Prep and then went on to play at University of Maryland–Baltimore County. “When match time came he gave you everything he had,” said former UMBC coach Keith Puryear, now the women’s coach at Navy. “He didn’t know anything other than that. He knew that his parents made some sacrifices in order for him to take advantage of the opportunity he was given, and he really took that to heart.”

After college, Kouznetsov became head coach at Robert Morris, giving lessons for $30 or $40 on the side. One of his clients was Jennifer, who had seen his advertisement in a local tennis newsletter — except he never charged her for lessons. Eventually, they fell in love. She followed him to Maryland when he took a job at the JTCC.

Francis Tiafoe was already a fixture at the JTCC by the time Kouznetsov arrived in 2007 and noticed his talent. “He kept saying that [Tiafoe was] a really good kid and they had a lot in common,” Jennifer recalled over the phone, “but that he couldn’t make it to tournaments because his parents didn’t have a way to get him there.” Misha and Jennifer shuttled him back and forth to tournaments, sometimes scrounging to find a way to pay for another motel night.

“It was kind of a lot for us, these three-day weekend affairs,” Jennifer said. “It was nerve-racking watching him play even then. It was this whole new world for me. … All of a sudden, I was kind of this tennis mom.” Jennifer was 25. Francis was only 9.

“Lately he’s been living a pretty nice life, staying in the nice hotels. But he has to keep the hunger,” Kouznetsov said at the Open, speaking without being prompted. I asked what, other than his infant, keeps Kouznetsov up at night. “His schoolwork, not being able to play,” he said, starting off a laundry list of concerns. “He needs to be able to keep getting better. All his practices must be high energy and quality. His travel time needs to be spent smart. … I just want him to be able to say that he did the best he could. Sometimes I see some days go by and [he can’t say], ‘I did the best I could.’ And that’s why I cannot sleep, you know?”

Kouznetsov’s pride in his pupil is extreme; he admitted that he cried when Tiafoe won his first tournament at the age of 9, when he won the Orange Bowl, and, again, in his courtside seat in Tiafoe’s match against Ito. So is Kouznetsov’s dedication. After we spoke, he excused himself to buy a gift for Jennifer because he’d forgotten their anniversary that day while getting Tiafoe prepared for Ito. When he described Tiafoe’s dream of going pro, he said that it’s Tiafoe’s dream, but it’s his dream too. “We are like a family,” he said. But he also stressed that his is tough love, and that he’s worried that Tiafoe needs him now more than ever. “When we’re on the road and he’s doing all of those things with fitness and school, he doesn’t necessarily like me. But we’ll have dinner or on the flight back, he’ll say, ‘Mish, thanks so much, man. I feel complete. I feel like I did it this trip, I feel like I have no regrets.’ He really loves it in the end, but he has to be pushed to those things. When he’s traveling alone, he doesn’t always get those things done because he wants to have fun. But fun isn’t what’s going to take him to top 10 in the world and achieve his dream.”

So far, from all appearances, Kouznetsov and Salazar have been able to put their differences — and perhaps their egos — aside to make the coaching tandem work. They began by reconstructing Tiafoe’s forehand. “His hands were separating too early,” Salazar told me, making an exaggerated opening of his arms to show what Tiafoe was doing. “He wasn’t staying connected with the unit turn, so he wasn’t getting enough rotation on the ball. That was a big part of his game that we changed. Now it’s his best shot.” The process was long and hard. “It was probably the worst eight months ever,” Tiafoe said. “I hated both of them very much. They were making me hit with girls, with a short court. I had to pull out of a lot of events. I tried a lot of different things at first, but it wasn’t working or I wasn’t comfortable with it. I’m just happy it’s [done] now, because just thinking about it is killing me.”

Tiafoe’s development is an ongoing process. At 6-foot-1, he has a good physique for tennis, lithe yet imposing, but he’s still growing; a few sprouts of hair had grown from his chin when I first interviewed him in College Park. The Challenger and Futures tournaments that Tiafoe will start focusing on are far from the glamour of meeting Beyoncé or hitting in Paris with Nadal. The purses are small and the travel brutal; some players can’t afford a coach or even a hotel room. How long he lasts in the lower tournaments will depend on how he performs — and what his life is like on the road will depend partly on how much he can earn from endorsements.

When I asked a tennis executive of a global sports agency what he made of the possibility that Tiafoe might turn professional with an agency that had no tennis clients, he smirked. “I think the answer is obvious.” He’d watched Tiafoe play at Wimbledon and walked away impressed. He also requested anonymity because he believed his colleagues were pursuing Tiafoe. “My recommendation is that he would sign with an agency that has strong experience in tennis and a strong presence in his domestic market.” Then I told him one of the agencies wooing Tiafoe was Roc Nation Sports. He only grew more animated. “I think it’s maybe flattering when they call you, you know? But it’s one thing to be invited to a concert. It’s another thing to be taken care of.” Of course, what Roc Nation has over the more experienced agencies is that it doesn’t have to be versed in the North American tennis market to sell the most compelling aspect of Tiafoe’s appeal: the hype.

After Tiafoe lost in qualifying of the U.S. Open, the tournament’s cognoscenti turned out to watch him play in the junior tournament. Reporters from the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN The Magazine tweeted news and updates on his matches. Tiafoe gave them a lot to say.

Tiafoe entered the U.S. Open Juniors as the no. 6 seed. After he took care of South Korea’s Chan-yeong Oh, 6-2, 6-3, in the first round, his next opponent, Daniel Appelgren of Sweden, retired after losing the first set in a tiebreak, 7-6 (3). (Appelgren apparently suffered a badly twisted ankle and couldn’t go on.) In the third round, he was tested by the no. 9 seed, Brazil’s Marcelo Zormann. He had served for the match in the second set — after breaking for 5-4 — but lost, 7-5, before drawing on his superior fitness to outlast his opponent in the third set, 6-3. Tiafoe was into his first quarterfinal of a junior Slam.

Russia’s Andrey Rublev, the no. 1 seed and reigning junior French Open champion, awaited Tiafoe. Tiafoe cruised to a 6-1 first-set win, closing with an ace and leaving his opponent a flat-footed, muttering mess. In the second set, he broke Rublev twice to build a 5-1 lead. The match appeared over. But Rublev shook off a pair of match points with Tiafoe serving at 5-3 and won six consecutive games to force a third and deciding set. In the heat, and feeling as if he were going to throw up, Tiafoe needed a medical timeout at 1-1. Tiafoe broke Rublev’s serve at 3-3 and then served for the match at 5-4. He won the match by smacking a forehand winner. Tiafoe tore his shirt off and threw it to the ground in celebration.

Tiafoe and Quentin Halys, the no. 5 seed, a 17-year-old from France, split the first two sets of the semifinal. In the tiebreak of the third, Tiafoe had two match points, but Halys took the tiebreak, 8-6, and the match, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (6). Halys fell to the ground and Tiafoe smashed his racket.

It all happened in a matter of seconds. 

Darren Sands (@darrensands) is a writer living in Brooklyn.