Tiafoe has unlikely journey to Miami Open match vs. Federer

Frances Tiafoe returns a shot against Konstanin Kravchuk of Russia during Day 4 of the Miami Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 23, 2017 in Key Biscayne, Florida.
Frances Tiafoe returns a shot against Konstanin Kravchuk of Russia during Day 4 of the Miami Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 23, 2017 in Key Biscayne, Florida. Getty Images

Frances Tiafoe’s journey to a center court dream match against his idol Roger Federer at the Miami Open seems almost too sappy to be true.

It isn’t every day that the son of an immigrant custodian at a posh tennis country club, a kid who napped on the massage tables while his father swept and cleaned, winds up playing an 18-time Grand Slam champion in front of what surely will be a packed stadium on Saturday.

Tiafoe, a 19-year-old qualifier from College Park, Maryland, is ranked No. 101 in the world and one of the young Americans predicted to do big things in the next few years. At 15, he was the youngest boys champion in Orange Bowl history. At 17, he earned a wild card to the French Open, the youngest American to do so since Michael Chang in 1989.

And Thursday afternoon, his 7-5, 5-7, 6-1 victory over 32-year-old Konstantin Kravchuk put him in Saturday’s second-round match against Federer.

He won’t lie. He’s excited beyond words.

“It's Roger Federer,” he exclaimed, with a huge smile. “This guy has about a million Grand Slams and done everything. I mean, I can’t tell you how excited I am to play. Seeing the draw was probably why being up a set and 4-1 I started rushing and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to play Roger, I’m going to play Roger.’

“Then I started thinking, ‘Okay, if I don’t get it done I won’t.’ I mean, he’s my idol, everyone’s idol. People still on tour in the locker room stare at him. He’s an absolute legend. We hope he never retires because he’s such a good ambassador for the sport.”

Asked if Federer is a player he has tried to emulate, Tiafoe smiled again and replied: “He’s too smooth to emulate. You can’t emulate a guy like him. He makes it look way too easy.”

Tiafoe’s parents, Constant and Alphina, emigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone and settled in Maryland. Constant was a laborer on a construction crew that was building a tennis center. Once it was built, he was hired as a custodian. He brought his sons with him to work sometimes, and eventually, Frances picked up a racket and started dabbling in tennis.

“It’s going to be an honor playing Federer, but I’m going to go after him and give it all I’ve got,” Tiafoe said.

In the first match Thursday morning, No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic beat American 83rd-ranked qualifier Madison Brengle 6-1, 6-3. Pliskova is coming off a semifinal finish at Indian Wells, California, and reached the quarterfinal of the Australian Open.

“The score [against Brengle] was quite easy, I think I was out there an hour, and there were a few tough games but otherwise, I played really solid,” Pliskova said. “It went quite easy, and I was happy to be only an hour out there because it’s pretty hot and humid, happy to save some power for matches later.”

Pliskova’s typically-reliable serve has deserted her the past few weeks, but the other parts of her game have carried her. She lost in the first round in Key Biscayne last year, and hopes to make up for it with a deep run this time.

Many fans don’t realize that Pliskova has an identical twin, Krystyna, who also plays on tour. Krystyna is ranked No. 52 and lost in the first round. Up until recently, the gap in their rankings was so wide that Krystyna often wasn’t playing the same tournaments as Karolina. Lately, they see each other a lot more.

“It’s a plus to have a twin sister in the same tournaments,” Karolina said. “Finally, she is better now, around 50, so we can play in the same tournaments...We were used to being together all the time, and that changed for a few years, but now we’re back together.”

Among the other women’s winners was former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who beat qualifier Varvara Lepchenko 6-1, 6-2.

One of the most exciting matches of the day was Borna Coric’s 7-6 (8-6), 4-6, 6-3 win over Marcel Granollers. Coric, a 20-year-old from Croatia, squandered three match points before clinching the victory on the fourth.

Coric, ranked 62, had beaten Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray by age 18. He is a big fan of boxer Mike Tyson, and he has a tattoo that reads: “There is nothing worse in life than being ordinary.” He said that mentality shows in the way he plays.

“When it’s a very important point, it’s important to go for the shot and do something which is not normal, go for something more. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.”

The tournament continues Friday, with headliner Rafael Nadal playing in the day session and Venus Williams not before 9:30 p.m.

Czech tennis player Karolina Pliskova talks about identical twin on March 23, 2017.

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