WIMBLEDON, England — When the last ball from the beaten opponent plopped down well behind the baseline in the twilight, Frances Tiafoe struck the thing anyway. He blasted it into the blue sky until the inaccuracies of depth perception made it look like it went right past — get this — the moon.
For the first time in his busy 19 years and six months here on Earth, he had won a match in the main draw of — get this, too — Wimbledon. He had won after his grass season had begun as “absolutely terrible,” in his words, and he had won after rescuing his brain from a patch of negativity. The Maryland native, whose life wound up intersecting with tennis because his father took a job as a laborer at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, had beaten No. 38-ranked Robin Haase of the Netherlands, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5, for his second match win across his first six instructive Grand Slams.
“Huge,” went Tiafoe’s adjective.
Mark it down, then. Tiafoe’s first Wimbledon win of maybe even many came on Court No. 6, along the line of side courts with narrow sidewalks between them, clunky hubbub among them and a steeple rising off the premises behind them. He won where the fans stand three or four deep at courtside, where you can hear an agent’s voice encourage you, where sudden cheers from a nearby match can distract you, and where the prevailing noise from Centre Court above might entice you, especially when they clap for video replays, which Court No. 6 lacks.
He won from a 4-1 fourth-set deficit and then, when a good cluster of fans clogged his path to the locker room, merrily signed autographs with, “You got it,” and, “No worries,” and fist bumps and, at one point, “America Day, baby!”
Then, as this son of Sierra Leonean-Americans made a few more strides, a pretty young woman approached. Might he kiss her on the cheek for a photo?
“I have a girlfriend,” he said cheerfully. “She’d be mad.”
The promise that began in earnest when he won the famed Orange Bowl juniors event at age 15 had reached another benchmark. It proved better than the one in March 2016, when he played No. 18-ranked David Goffin of Belgium to a closing-set tiebreaker at the big second-tier event in Indian Wells, Calif. It proved better than last U.S. Open, when Tiafoe and John Isner played the first match ever on the new Grandstand Court and it turned out to be a doozy with a fifth-set tiebreaker and Isner saying, “I certainly would buy stock in him right now for sure.”
Tiafoe thought about that loss for merely the rest of last year, he said, but recovered for a first Grand Slam win in Australia in January, when he defeated 98th-ranked Mikhail Kukushkin, but Tuesday surpassed even that. It surpassed also his taut two sets with Roger Federer in Miami in March — 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 — when Federer found him “fearless” and Tiafoe found a great sign in, “I didn’t make the moment bigger than it needed to be.” And it surpassed two Challenger Tour titles this past spring that included wins over veterans who have been places, such as Jeremy Chardy and Jurgen Melzer.
“I think winning at Wimbledon’s huge,” Tiafoe said. “This is the biggest tournament in tennis for so many different reasons. You can see the history around the grounds. The Village around you, everyone lives for it. People outside of tennis, all the famous actors and everyone, knows Wimbledon. Everyone knows tennis started on grass, and I can go on a long time talking about this. You know, winning at Wimbledon is huge and meant a lot to me, especially having the last two weeks, not really winning a match, so peaking here . . .”
That would be here where, he said, in Wimbledon Village, at “the little coffee shop I go every morning, people know who I am, and I’m not even a top player.”
In a sport ever more tilting toward the elderly players in their 30s, Tiafoe is the top-ranked teenager, at No. 64 overall. He will play next on Thursday against No. 12 Alexander Zverev, the German who is merely 20 and who happened to usher out Tiafoe at the Australian Open (6-2, 6-3, 6-4). Toward that, Tiafoe will take a confidence certainly and suddenly enhanced.
For the Queen’s Club event in mid-June, a Wimbledon tuneup, he exited in the first round of qualifying, to the No. 404-ranked Liam Broady, proving again that the 400th-best player in tennis is actually very, very good. “All credit to Robby Ginepri,” Tiafoe said of his coach, the retired pro who is himself still only 34. “He’s helped me a lot. I was pretty negative in Queen’s. I mean, grass wasn’t my favorite surface, still really isn’t. Movement’s pretty tough. But, you know, he just told me I could be good, I could be good on it, and he just kept putting it in my head. I started to believe it now.” A narrow loss in Eastbourne to Richard Gasquet, the veteran once ranked No. 7, helped further until, “I’ve been really positive, really confident.”
A witness might have guessed otherwise during that fourth set. To start off that little drama, Tiafoe had broken Haase, a 30-year-old mainstay in his 34th Grand Slam tournament. Haase had broken back. Haase had broken again. This had irked Tiafoe. When Haase aced him twice in a row to close down a service game for a 4-1 lead, even Tiafoe figured a fifth set nigh. His body language seemed to translate into resignation.
But that wasn’t true, and the barrage he loosed from there decorated the path from 1-4 to 7-5 with some gorgeous stuff. “Now I’m 60-something in the world, and I feel like I belong here,” he would say. “I don’t feel like it’s a fluke anymore.” Without a hint of a fluke, he served out the match at love, and that came just after he secured a break in the penultimate game by letting out a guttural yell as he swung through a screaming beauty of a backhand pass up the line.
That shot, he might even remember all the way from here to the moon.