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After ‘a hell of a battle’ at Wimbledon, Frances Tiafoe awaits the next step

Frances Tiafoe fell in five sets to Belgium's David Goffin in the round of 16 at Wimbledon on Sunday. (Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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WIMBLEDON, England — Huge opportunity had shimmered just up ahead and then dissolved, so it felt like one of those endings so wrenching that the nonwinner might wish technology had stopped at VHS so he could take the tape and burn it in some cathartic ceremony.

Then Frances Tiafoe reached the interview room and seemed a notch more buoyant than bummed. He felt certain of his continued upswing. He answered questions about his rarefied sense of on-court humor. He came across as perfectly 24 — a tour veteran and a pup in tennis years all at once.

Besides, he had just played the co-lead in a doozy on Court No. 2.

“Just a hell of a battle,” he said.

On the arc of the career of the kid from Hyattsville, Tiafoe’s 4-hour 36-minute, 403-point bout with David Goffin of Belgium in Wimbledon’s round of 16 on Sunday could have been a big step across a key bridge in a sport where wide-reaching achievements happen in narrow passageways. It could have given him a second Grand Slam quarterfinal berth and his first since the 2019 Australian Open. It could have given him a real shot at a first Grand Slam semifinal, maybe on Centre Court opposite Novak Djokovic.

Instead, the unseeded Goffin’s 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 win might serve as something else for the 23rd-seeded Tiafoe: a fresh emblem of being way up there somewhere. “Level of tennis was, I mean, top 10, easy,” Tiafoe said. “Hitting ridiculous shots, both of us.”

So that time in the fourth set he served at 4-5 and saved three set points, then had three game points, then fell on a double fault and a netted forehand from a 17-shot rally ...

Oh, man ...

And that time in the fifth set when he returned at 5-5 and saw two break points at 15-40 and then suffered ace, service winner, service winner, service winner ...

Oh, gosh ...

There was the possibility of an all-American quarterfinal between Tiafoe and Tommy Paul, before both lost Sunday and Paul said after losing in straight sets to Cameron Norrie, “Our side of the draw was pretty open; I don’t think it’s a secret to anybody.”

It might be okay not to burn it all down, especially given Tiafoe’s quality amid a masterpiece of a fight.

“We definitely left it out there on the court,” he said at one point.

“Rallies were insane; level was insane,” he said at another.

It’s clear after 25 entries in Grand Slam tournaments that Tiafoe craves the next rung, which would be routine presence in the second weeks of the major brackets. He said so the other day: “I want more.” He has been to four fourth rounds, winning one. In a sport with one staggering generation yielding slowly to the next — unless, say, Djokovic keeps winning until he’s 50 — and in which an even younger duo had a heyday on Centre Court on Sunday (20-year-old Italian sensation Jannik Sinner bested 19-year-old Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz in four sets), it might be just about time for Tiafoe to go ahead and start moving a little more deeply into the fortnights.

That’s why this one could qualify as agony, but for now he did say he might even re-watch the match in a few days, might even see the gobs of goodness between the 28th-ranked player (Tiafoe) and the 58th-ranked player (Goffin), who also met in the second round at the French Open, a four-set win for the Belgian.

“You appreciate it much more after, right?” Tiafoe said. “During, you’re just trying to do everything in your power to try to get a win. I haven’t even really processed what just happened. Just played five brutal sets. Crazy rallies, running everywhere. Yeah, probably in a couple days maybe if I watch the match back or whatever, I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, man, that was crazy to be a part of.’ ”

For now: “I’m going to be sore as hell tomorrow.”

Choice words, bizarre antics mark a wacky men’s night at Wimbledon

“The atmosphere on that court was amazing,” said Goffin, a 31-year-old who advanced to a fourth major quarterfinal. “You have players that it’s always nice to play against — not because of the game or something like this but just because there’s always a nice atmosphere on the court with the opponent and also the crowd likes it. That was the case today with Frances. We gave everything on the court. ... So, yeah, it’s a great memory on that court.”

It had heft but also humor, showcasing Tiafoe’s useful knack for the latter. After one chase early on, he shook hands with a spectator.

“He’s giving a nice, formal handshake,” Tiafoe said. “I thought it was funny. ... That calmed me down. After that, it was war.”

After another chase later, in the fourth set, he wound up near a lineswoman, so he kind of just leaned toward her, then wound up hugging her.

“I see the lady, I went up to the lady, also tired, so I just hugged the lady,” he said. “Hit it hard down the line [just before that], too. She laughed about it.”

After he sent a fourth-set serve so far gone that it appeared it surpassed the baseline — “Worst serve I ever hit in my life,” he said — he did something subtler: He raised his racket briefly as if to challenge the line call.

“Yeah, I actually wish I did it up,” he said of the challenge. “That would have been hilarious. I think the whole crowd would have laughed.”

Those things can help when things go on for so long that, as Tiafoe said: “It felt like we were on clay court at one point, rallies were so long. I was like, ‘This is defeating the purpose of the grass-court season!’ ”

Technically, he did lose.

“Definitely going to sting,” he said. “In the end, good opportunity for a lot of guys. I was hoping me and Tommy could both win, play quarterfinal, but unfortunately we both lost. Yeah, it was an opportunity for a lot of guys to try to go further in the Slam. ... At the end of the day, I played great tennis, so it’s not something I can dwell on or feel sorry for myself.”

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