Frances Tiafoe can’t think of a better way to kickstart his 21st birthday celebrations – a victory over Grigor Dimitrov to book a maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open on Sunday.
Tiafoe brought down the former world No.3 7-5 7-6(6) 6-7(1) 7-5 to become the first American since Andy Roddick nine years ago to reach the last eight in Melbourne.
It was the perfect coming-of-age gift on a milestone birthday.
The triumph, after three hours and 40 minutes, prompted his bicep and chest thumping LeBron James-inspired celebrations before the crowd broke into a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.
It almost fell on deaf ears as he stared in sheer disbelief.
As Tiafoe was coaxed to reflect on his breakthrough win, he was asked whether this was the best birthday of his life.
There was no holding back the immensity of the occasion any longer as he dipped his head and broke down in tears.
“It means the world. I worked my ass off, man,” he quivered. “I told my parents 10 years ago I was going to be a pro and change my life, change their life. Now I’m in the quarters of a slam at 20 years old – 21 years old – I can’t believe it, man.”
It guaranteed a pay cheque of $A460,000, $A920,000 if he was to go on and pull off the biggest win of his career over Rafael Nadal next.
It is a financial windfall that meant so much to Tiafoe, given his humble upbringing in Hyattsville, Maryland.
His parents, having fled civil unrest in Sierra Leone, were desperate to make ends meet in the hope of creating a better life for their twin sons.
“I obviously wasn’t a normal tennis story,” Tiafoe said. “The beginning of my career, I was playing for them, trying to do everything for my family.
“Obviously now I put them in a great place. Now I’m trying to do it for me.”
In their only prior meeting, Dimitrov eked out a narrow win in Toronto last season. But on Sunday, the 29-year-old’s confidence was a shadow of the aura he carried when he confidently thwarted a red-hot Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round last year or 12 months earlier, when he nearly toppled Rafael Nadal in a gripping semi-final.
“I mean, all credit to him,” Dimitrov said. “Fought well, played well. Went for his shots, lived a bit on the edge with a lot of games. Just took advantage of that situation … Certain moments today I just wasn’t able to convert or play well for that matter.”
Such moments from the second-set tie-break were sure to haunt the Bulgarian as he pondered where it all went wrong.
Presented with a simple put-away at net to make, leading 3-1 in the tie-break, Dimitrov angled a crosscourt backhand straight to a stranded Tiafoe, who promptly flicked it into the open court.
If that wasn’t the pivotal hestitation that allowed Tiafoe back into the set, it came on Dimitrov’s third set point when he double faulted.
The American pounced and two points later, he was the one nodding confidently in his team’s direction with a two-set lead.
“I just wasn’t able to execute some shots that I really needed to,” Dimitrov said.
“Especially in that tie-break, as much as I was playing better and better, he just kept coming back with some good answers … On certain moments, I could definitely have hit a better shot.”
Any further birthday celebrations would be put on hold for Tiafoe as he looked ahead to the biggest match of his life.
He wanted to save every ounce of energy for his first meeting with 17-time slam champion, Nadal,
“Yeah I can’t do anything,” he said of his birthday plans. “He’s going to run me like crazy. I got to go to sleep now, matter of fact.
“We’re going to have some fun, going to have some long rallies. I hope I can play on Laver. That would be cool. I guess all the matches are on Laver now, right?”
It is the type of endearing naivety to be expected from a player breaking new ground in the second week of a slam.