Big flex: Youngsters Tiafoe, Fritz stun top seeds in Australia

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – Frances Tiafoe rolled up his white shirt’s right sleeve, flexed his biceps and slapped the muscle five times. Then he pounded his chest and yelled, “Yeah! Let’s go! Let’s go! Come on!”

Forgive the young American’s exuberance. This was, after all, the biggest victory of his nascent career.

Down a set and 3-0 in the second, the 20-year-old Tiafoe came back to stun two-time Grand Slam finalist and number five seed Kevin Anderson of South Africa 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 yesterday in the Australian Open’s second round.

“I went to a different place. I dug insanely deep,” the 39th-ranked Tiafoe said. “It’s all about competing. Guys are so good. It’s just about how badly you want it. I want it real bad.”

He was joined in the third round by another kid from the United States (US) who’d never been that far at Melbourne Park, 21-year-old Taylor Fritz, who saved 12 of the 13 break points he faced while dispatching number 30 seed Gael Monfils of France 6-3, 6-7 (8), 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5).

United States’ Frances Tiafoe reacts after winning a point against South Africa’s Kevin Anderson during their second round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia yesterday. – PHOTOS: AP
United States’ Taylor Fritz makes a backhand return to France’s Gael Monfils during their second round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia yesterday

Next for Fritz is a matchup against Roger Federer, the two-time defending champion in Australia and owner of 20 Grand Slam titles.

“I grew up watching a lot of the guys I play today. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Monfils’ highlight reel on YouTube, just growing up. ‘Fed’ (Federer) obviously, my whole life growing up, he was always the best, winning everything,” Fritz said.

“So it’s really cool being able to step on the court with him again.”

A day after American men went 1-5, the country’s contingent produced those two upsets and threw a couple of scares into other seeded players, too, but couldn’t pull off the wins.

Mackenzie McDonald pushed number Marin Cilic before losing 7-5, 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, and Denis Kudla went to a fifth set before bowing out 6-4, 7-5, 3-6, 6-7 (6), 6-4 against number 18 Diego Schwartzman.

Reilly Opelka, a 21-year-old who eliminated number nine John Isner in an all-US first-round showdown, held a 67-2 ace advantage – and a 38-centimetre height advantage – against Thomas Fabbiano but lost to the Italian 6-7 (15), 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (5).

“This group (of Americans) really deserves the hype, I guess, because I think everyone’s good,” Fritz said.

Cilic was the 2014 US Open champion and the runner-up at Melbourne Park to Federer last year. Against McDonald, a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion in singles and doubles at UCLA who is 23 years old and ranked 81st, Cilic delivered 25 aces, including on each of the last two points.

“It was a much tougher match than I expected,” Cilic said. “I didn’t know much about him.”

For Tiafoe, it helped that Anderson’s best attribute, his intimidating serve, slowed down along the way because of problems with his right arm. Anderson was repeatedly visited by a trainer during changeovers and he lost pace on his first serves as the match wore on.

Anderson was the runner-up at Wimbledon last year and at the US Open in 2017 and had won all three previous matchups against Tiafoe.

But Tiafoe ended a six-match losing streak against top-10 opponents and is now into the third round at a major for the second time, equaling his best showing.

“These are the matches where they kind of define you and help you feel more and more comfortable to keep winning matches like that,” Tiafoe said. “So, yeah, I’m definitely going to remember this one.”