Francis Tiafoe wins his rain-delayed Wimbledon juniors debut

Francis Tiafoe literally grew up around tennis, often spending nights at a Maryland tennis center where his father worked. At only 16, he is ranked number two in the world. Could a future U.S. champion be in the making? (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

It took three days to accomplish, but 16-year-old Francis Tiafoe completed his opening match at Wimbledon’s Junior Championships Tuesday, weathering a strong-serving opponent, three rain delays and his own spotty play.

Tiafoe, seeded seventh in the 64-player tournament for boys 18-and-under, had played just two grass-court matches before arriving at the All England Club for the season’s third Grand Slam event.

But after turning back unseeded Martin Blasko of Slovakia 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, the seventh-seeded Tiafoe now boasts a 1-0 Wimbledon record despite the fact that he’s not yet comfortable with the low bounce of the ball, the movement that’s required or the special shoes the surface demands.

“The grass is not easy to play on,” said Tiafoe, who has trained since childhood at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center. “The movement — I’m still not liking it too much. Still slipping and off-balance a lot.”

Initially scheduled for Saturday, Tiafoe’s first-round match was postponed by the day-long driving rain. It was halted again Monday morning almost the moment the players took Court No. 5 for warm-ups. After a lengthy delay, the match finally got under way in late afternoon under thick, humid air.

Tiafoe served quickly, as if racing the rain clouds. Up a break, he was about to serve for the opening set, leading 5-4, when the rain returned. Determining the court was too slippery to safely continue, the chair umpire suspended play for the night.

It wasn’t a decision Tiafoe had sought, leaving him with a night to think about the opening set that hung in the balance. But he returned to court Tuesday and served out the set.

From that point, he seemed to lose focus, while his opponent’s serve improved.

“I was lackadaisical with the feet,” Tiafoe said of the drop in his performance in the second set. “He played a lot better. I kind of just played a bit casual.”

Blasko leveled the match at one set each. And a tight third set followed, with Tiafoe getting the critical break on a forehand error by the Slovak.

While he has yet to see any sights in London, Tiafoe ran into Wimbledon champion Andy Murray in the juniors’ locker room after his victory. It’s a popular hang-out for many top pros, given its proximity to the practice courts. Murray asked Tiafoe how he did in the match and wished him good luck going forward.

“That, to me, means a lot,” Tiafoe said. “It’s not every day you get to talk to a guy that’s four in the world and the Wimbledon champion.”

Given the backlogged schedule, Tiafoe will play daily for as long as he continues winning.

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