For two decades, male American tennis players have all tried to be Ivan Lendl.
If you have spent any time at all in the American youth tennis system, you know what I'm talking about. Lendl's power baseline, big forehand, big serve game has been the template for men and women of all shapes and sizes, of all talents, from all walks of life. The emphasis on hitting winners, only coming to the net when necessary, and forcing the play was probably how you were taught. There were no other options.
It's not unique to America. The modern game is a warped style of Lendl's game, taking all of the long baseline rallies and removing as much finesse as possible. Frances Tiafoe is different. During his quaterfinal loss to Rafael Nadal on Tuesday, Tiafoe's buggy-whip forehand is more reminiscent of his opponent than any of the American tennis icons of the last 30 years. The stroke has been described as "unconventional", "unrepeatable", and at times, just flat-out "ugly".
And yet none of that matters when you are winning. Rafael Nadal's forehand is equally "ugly". According to modern tennis technique, it is blatantly incorrect.
"'You can have a perfect technique, like Federer, and you can have Rafael Nadal's technique - for me, his forehand is generally wrong," former Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova said in an interview late last year.
Few children could hit that forehand in the American youth tennis system and expect to retain that shot. Even fewer would switch from playing right-handed to left-handed. Someone will eventually tell young Rafael Nadal his weird forehand is wrong and he can't play like he does. And it is wrong. It's also the most effective shot in men's tennis and has been the engine for 17 Grand Slam finals.
But Tiafoe's unique forehand, loopy and filled with an exaggerated swing, has survived. In fact, much of the flair and excitement in his game has seemingly survived while a generation of American men have become clones of Lendl. Tiafoe comes to the net frequently. He tries crazy drop shots, a foreign skill for most Americans. While he retains the best concepts from the American game, a big first serve, a desire to end points authoritatively, but also adds in elements that most American never even try.
It's fitting that Tiafoe's style has survived. His family is a story of survival. He is son of refugees from Sierra Leone who fled a brutal civil war that displaced 2.5 million people. He started playing tennis because his father worked maintenance at the local tennis club. It is the quintessential story of the American Dream. Tiafoe didn't have the benefit of paying top dollar for elite youth tennis coaches. His family didn't even have enough money or spare time to watch his youth matches.
And yet, maybe fortune still smiles on those who work twice as hard, those who need to scrap their way to the top rather than those who are already there. There's no shortage of tennis stars who received the best in everything. They are more likely to succeed; that's the way of the world. Just look at Alexander Zverev, the son of a professional tennis player who constantly has had his pick of the best coaches, the best facilities, whatever he wants. But what gives people hope, what gives them a reason to keep showing up every morning and fighting, is that Frances Tiafoe made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, while Zverev flamed out and lost 6-1, 6-1,7-6 in the Round of 16.
The American youth tennis system is designed for the Zverevs of the world. It is designed for perfection (read: whiteness). There's a reason American tennis has made 40 players who play like Taylor Dent and precisely zero players who play like Gaël Monfils or Radek Stepanek. Just look at what they did to Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock or Donald Young. Is there any reason that Harrison and Sock, who have the softest hands of anyone on tour, should be standing 20 miles behind the baseline and trying to hit forehand winners? Just because they can, doesn't mean they should. Why can't Sock just play like Stepanek, or become a Mischa Zverev with far better agility and more tools? He cannot because he was not bred to play that way. And thus, he is No. 105 in the world. Good job, everyone.
Tiafoe can play offense and defense, something that Taylor Fritz and Jared Donaldson cannot do. Against Anderson, he defended like David Ferrer with considerably more athletic ability. Against Dimitrov, he attacked the Bulgarian's weaknesses and moved to the net with intent. Against Seppi, he ground down the veteran with baseline play and slices. It's a variance that you never see from Taylor Fritz and you sure as hell never see from John Isner or Sam Querrey. Tiafoe is even good on clay, something that has eluded American tennis fans since Agassi. These are the reasons why American tennis fans are so high on Tiafoe and have been waiting for this breakout. He's different from the mundanity of Roddick and Isner. He offers something that tennis fans have never seen before and may never see again.
To break that cycle, it takes a survivor. It takes someone who has been through some shit, someone who had to fight and strive to keep their individuality in spite of everything. It takes someone who's not afraid to hit a fucking drop shot, someone who's not afraid to pepper Grigor Dimitrov with forehands right down the middle that he can't do anything but block back. American tennis fans want Frances Tiafoe to be great. American tennis as a whole needs Frances Tiafoe to be great. They need guys like Tiafoe or Mackenzie McDonald, another player who has recognized the American style is not for him, and taken the best aspects of Kei Nishikori and stereotypically "Asian" tennis that just "isn't done" in America.
What I will be taking from Tiafoe's run in the Australian Open is proof, at last, that something different can work. America is a place terrified of even trying something different, and thus, we need special people to drag us into the next age. Frances Tiafoe is that special player today. Can he finally be the one to redeem American tennis?