MELBOURNE, Australia — Sometimes Grand Slam breakthroughs, even for the most hyped and promising tennis players, come when least expected. Consider the case of Frances Tiafoe, the 21-year-old American hopeful who limped into this year’s Australian Open with little to suggest his first week would unfold in the stirring way that it has.
An electric talent who has been talked about since his midteens because of his potential and hardscrabble history, Tiafoe, ranked 39th, staggered through the end of last season. Then he went winless in a string of early January exhibition matches in Perth. Six days before this tournament began, he was outgunned at a warm-up tournament in Sydney by the Australian journeyman John Millman.
“Perth was terrible,” Tiafoe said. “Sydney was bad.”
Buzz? The kind of stirring expectations that surrounded Federer-slayer Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 14th-seeded Greek player, going into Melbourne?
Around Tiafoe, there was no buzz.
But all that changed over the first week of this tournament, a stretch that Tiafoe, a 6-foot-2 power-hitter, capped on a hot Sunday afternoon with a Round of 16 win over Grigor Dimitrov, who was seeded No. 20. The score was 7-5, 7-6 (6), 6-7 (1), 7-5.
It was a third straight upset for a player who, entering this tournament, had never won a match at the Australian Open and had only been in the draw once, in 2018. Now, with a surprise win on his 21st birthday, Tiafoe has launched into the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time.
“It means the world,” said Tiafoe, known for his unvarnished candor, speaking to a packed crowd at Melbourne Arena after the match.
For all the hard work in a match that lasted nearly four hours, he next faces Rafael Nadal, the second seed, who has won the Australian Open once, in 2009. Nadal, of course, will be an overwhelming favorite. But Tiafoe will have a confidence he has never had before, and strong backing from fans.
Tiafoe, one of the few black male players in pro tennis, has become a crowd favorite in Melbourne, captivating crowds with his personality, flair-filled game and bare-chested celebrations that have followed each of his three big upsets. (He has made a habit of ripping his shirt off after a win, pounding his chest and his right bicep, and punching the air, a nod to moves made by LeBron James, one of his idols.)
“This is crazy man, this is crazy,” Tiafoe said a few hours after the match. His eyes sparkled. He looked as if he were in awe of his accomplishment. He recalled his past. Tiafoe’s parents fled a civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s and settled outside Washington. His father had been a custodian at a public tennis center in College Park, Md., and young Frances and his twin brother learned the game there.
In his early teens, Tiafoe promised his family that he would one day become a star tennis player, and take care of everyone.
“I obviously wasn’t a normal tennis story,” he said.
In the beginning of his career, he said, he had been playing for his family. Not long ago, he bought his mother a house and he is indeed providing his family with a comfortable life. “Now,” he said, “I’m trying to do it for me.”
Dimitrov, 27, is a tour stalwart known for his immense talent, long among the world’s top-20 men’s players, and the winner of eight tour titles. But from the start of this match, Tiafoe, who has won just a single title, gave as good as he got.
The match turned in the second set tiebreaker. Facing a trio of set points, Tiafoe responded as he has all week — first in his win against Kevin Anderson, one of the tournament favorites, and then over the 35th-ranked Italian veteran, Andrea Seppi. He buckled down, kept his chin up and a spring in his step, and scorched a series of winners and error-inducing groundstrokes. Not long afterward, aided by a Dimitrov double fault, the set was his, and soon the match.
“In that tiebreak, as much as I was playing better and better, he just kept coming back with good answers,” said Dimitrov, whose own Grand Slam coming out came in 2014, when he lost in the Wimbledon semifinals to the eventual champion, Novak Djokovic.
On Sunday, after a match point in which a Dimitrov groundstroke fell into the net, Tiafoe bent over in the moment, hands on his knees, stunned. Who could blame him? He had struggled at the end of last year, losing matches a player of his talent is expected to win.
His traveling coach, Zack Evenden, explained that a turn came following the painful defeat two weeks ago to Millman, ranked No. 37, at the Sydney International.
“Millman wanted it more,” Evenden said. He recalled Tiafoe realizing that he could learn from the Australian journeyman, who is deeply admired on tour for his doggedness. “Talent is not enough to get you where you want to be. You’ve got to turn up for every single point. You have got to want it, and want it bad.”
Tiafoe now goes up against a player who has 17 Gand Slam titles and is perhaps the greatest competitor in tennis history.
Nadal “is going to run me like crazy,” Tiafoe said after the match. Then he flashed the self-assurance that comes with a first big, major tournament breakthrough: “He better get ready.”