PARIS — While fending off the thunder-struck serves of an unseeded German as big as a mountain, fear crept into Francis Tiafoe’s mind.
Despite a one-set, 2-1 lead, the suburban Washington native realized he could lose in the second round of the Junior French Open despite being the tournament’s No. 1 seed. And that fear became fact Monday even before Tiafoe’s twin brother in Riverdale Park had a chance to send his “Good Luck!” text of the day.
The 16-year-old Tiafoe was ousted, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, his serve and poise unraveling in a haze of frustration as his best shots only made his opponent, 17-year-old Jan Choinski, play better.
As Tiafoe trudged off Court 17, having gone from the junior tournament’s top story line to yesterday’s news in two hours’ time, he took solace in the words of Misha Kouznetsov, the coach who nurtured his game since age 8.
“It’s not about now,” Kouznetsov told him. “It’s about later.”
Tiafoe, who learned the game at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center, where his father worked as a maintenance man, was touted as the future of U.S. tennis after becoming the youngest boy (at age 15) to win the Orange Bowl, a prestigious international clay-court title claimed by such greats as Roger Federer, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.
Partly as a result, he made his debut at the Junior French Open on Sunday as the No. 1 seed — the competitor whom 63 rivals most wanted to beat, the youngster whom the media wanted to interview and the American deemed most likely to reclaim the country’s once proud tennis history.
Tiafoe may do that in a few years. But on Monday he was a 16-year-old searching for answers, unable to make tactical adjustments or maintain his confidence against a player he had never seen before who was blasting him off the court.
“It’s not easy,” Tiafoe said afterward. “Obviously you’re feeling pressure, me being the one seed, and the guy is playing unbelievable tennis. Obviously you’re thinking you don’t want to lose in the second round. I think it just comes out: all the emotions you feel inside. Sometimes it has to come out. And today, more than usual.”
After cruising to a straight-sets victory in Sunday’s first-round match, which drew high-ranking U.S. Tennis Association officials, a clutch of agents and tennis fans eager to see the sport’s latest phenom, Tiafoe returned to Roland Garros on Monday for a 9:30 a.m. practice. He looked relaxed and confident when he took the court shortly after noon against Choinski, who towered over the 6-foot-2 American.
The crowd on Court 17 had thinned considerably from Sunday. After getting past that often tricky first round, the No. 1 seed wouldn’t be news again until he lost.
Tiafoe broke Choinski’s booming serve in the opening game and led 6-3, 2-1, when the German cut down on his errors and ratcheted up his fierce intensity.
And Tiafoe’s composure frayed as his first serves deserted him and his normally reliable forehand missed its mark repeatedly. Still, he battled.
After losing the second set, he clawed back from a 15-40 deficit to hold serve in the opening game of the third. After getting broken two games later, he leveled the score at 3-3.
But he started each successive game at a deficit, and the struggle took a toll. He shrugged his shoulders, yelled “So bad!” at one point and looked repeatedly to Frank Salazar, his coach at major events, as if to ask, “What more can I do?”
“I definitely wasn’t expecting this tournament to end like this,” Tiafoe conceded later. “Everybody has bad losses here and there. But, respect to the guy I played today: He played unbelievable. I hope he can go on a run this week.”
Ever since arriving at Roland Garros last Friday, Tiafoe has collected experiences to savor, as if mementos for some future scrapbook.
He hadn’t realized that pro players often visit the junior players’ lounge, and he studied their habits and professionalism as if preparing for a final exam. He was thrilled to find that his locker was next to reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray’s, and the two chatted about the Scot’s game.
Despite the pressure and tough losses that come with climbing the junior ranks, Tiafoe flatly rejected a reporter’s suggestion Monday that the life of a “regular kid” might be more appealing.
“It’s never fun just being a regular kid,” Tiafoe said during his second post-match interview in two days. “It’s fun when you can have interviews with you guys and be in the same room with David Ferrer. Being a regular kid, you’re just another person. Hopefully I can get better and really be known internationally.”
For that to happen, of course, Tiafoe’s takeaways from his Junior French Open debut must cut deeper than brushes with tennis greatness.
On some level, he realizes that.
“There’s no time to be walking around making people feel sorry for you,” Tiafoe said. “Everyone loses. You just have to take some time, slow down, get back to the practice courts and get back to working hard and get confident again and work on your weaknesses.”
Salazar’s job is to make sure he works on the right things.
The coach was pleased with Tiafoe’s effort Monday. But tactically, he would have liked to have seen the youngster react more quickly when the momentum shifted.
Against such a big server, for example, Tiafoe should have stepped farther back to receive serve, Salazar said. When his own first serve failed him, he should have switched to high-percentage serves. And once the German got in his hard-hitting groove, Tiafoe could have tried breaking his rhythm by coming to the net or peppering him with angles rather than countering pace with pace.
But the ability to figure all that out — and execute it in the heat of competition — is a skill that’s far more difficult to master than footwork or a single stroke, Salazar said. And that’s what Tiafoe needs to work on going forward.
“The greatest victory Francis can have from this match today is learning from it,” Salazar said. “He has to make those adjustments when he plays and feel those situations.”
For those who had expected the future of U.S. tennis to blossom full flower in his Junior French Open debut, the takeaway was yet another American defeat.
“Disappointing,” one veteran coach was overheard saying to another outside the junior players’ lounge as they discussed Tiafoe’s early ouster.
The other coach argued that it could the best thing for Tiafoe in the long run.
“We’ll see how good he is,” the coach said. “We’ll see how much he wants it.”
Martina Navratilova, who counts two French Open titles among her 18 Grand Slam singles championships, feels that winning and world rankings are over-emphasized in junior tennis.
“The whole junior system is set up that you need to be ranked high enough that people pay attention to you, which doesn’t allow you to develop your game,” said Navratilova, 57. “It’s all about winning. Winning is good, but not to the point where it takes away from you developing as a tennis player.
“I just would say, ‘Relax. Play your game and think long-term about your game. Where do you want your game to be five years from now? Not today.’ ”