Wimbledon diary: Frances Tiafoe and Sloane Stephens on riding the tennis roller-coaster

American duo trade pep-talks before first-round wins, while Jabeur prepares for 'dream' clash with Williams

TOPSHOT - US player Frances Tiafoe celebrates breaking serve against Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas during their men's singles first round match on the first day of the 2021 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on June 28, 2021.  - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE
 / AFP / Ben STANSALL / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE

The first ball of competitive tennis was struck at Wimbledon on Monday for the first time in 715 days and it was an absolute delight to witness.

But even more heartwarming were some of the stories that unfolded across the grounds, including Frances Tiafoe’s upset of No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and Sloane Stephens’ composed dismissal of No. 10 seed and two-time champion Petra Kvitova.

The American duo traded pep talks before their respective matches, and the camaraderie paid off as Tiafoe claimed the biggest win of his career on Court No 1, and Stephens posted just her second top-10 victory since 2018.

“I saw her today right before, she was coming up, I was going to practice. I was just like, ‘Sloane, I back you to win today. I'm not even worried about it’,” said Tiafoe on Monday.

“She's cracking up laughing. She's like, ‘You better do the same thing’. I was like, ‘Hey, don't worry about it’.

“We're great friends. First thing I came off, seeing if she won. That made me even happier. I'm happy for both of us.”

Both Tiafoe and Stephens know what it’s like to experience incredible highs and difficult lows that come with being a professional tennis player and on Monday, they shared great insight into their perspective on how they best navigate such peaks and troughs.

Tiafoe, with twin brother Franklin, was born in Maryland in 1998 to parents Frances Sr. and Alphina, who were immigrants from Sierra Leone.

The 23-year-old, whose best major performance to date came when he made the Australian Open quarter-finals in 2019, has been open about the hardships he and his family had to go through, from humble beginnings to him cracking the top 30 two years ago.

It is a journey that has helped him handle the pressure of the big stage with a rock solid perspective.

“Pressure was turning pro, being able to provide for my family. I'm able to do that. I think perspective is everything. But there's a long way I want to go. I've handled my real pressures. Everything else is kind of between the lines,” Tiafoe told reporters at Wimbledon.

Tiafoe slipped from his top-30 ranking to as low as 84 in the world last year. But he entered Wimbledon coming off a Challenger title run on grass in Nottingham, and has now notched the first top-five victory of his career with success over Tsitsipas on Monday.

Tiafoe is the kind of person who likes to hype up his friends and peers when they’re doing well and is always the first to send out a congratulatory message on social media.

Stephens is a former world No. 3 and is the 2017 US Open champion and 2018 Roland-Garros runner-up. The 28-year-old Floridian is one of the fastest athletes on tour and boasts a smooth and effortless game, but can also suffer extended rough patches. She is playing Wimbledon with a ranking of 73, and she started 2021 by losing four first rounds in a row.

“People forget, this girl won a Slam, made finals of another one, won a Masters Series. She's one of the best girls on tour arguably when she's fully there. There's no gimmick. This is a fact,” Tiafoe said of Stephens.

“I think ultimately it's understanding that it's not always peaches and cream, man. Everyone is going through certain struggles. You don't even know what these guys are going through maybe personally, whatever the case may be.

“It's not easy to always be playing at your top level. It's just managing the highs and lows, but always understanding that you're a baller, you're capable. She's so capable.

Same thing for me. 2019 my highest ranking, I was playing great, going on deep runs. Trying to get back there, then more so.”

Stephens spoke earlier this year about managing those highs and lows, and how accepting that in tennis the losses can come way more frequently than the wins is the key to survive the grind of the tour.

She has a way more mature approach to her tennis these days, and exudes this peacefulness, in both victory and defeat. At least that’s how it looks like from the outside.

Quote
Ultimatley, it's understanding that it's not always peaches and cream, man. Everyone is going through certain struggles
Frances Tiafoe

“There's definitely panic when you're on a losing streak. I will say that,” she told me on Monday.

“It's definitely, like, I have to change this, my racquet is not right, I need different shoes, I need a new coach. There is all of those things that creep obviously into your mind.

“But I think for tennis, it's so one week you could be pretty average and basic, and the next week you could be like quartering, semi-ing a Grand Slam and your whole world changes.

“I think kind of just having that perspective of, like, at any moment it could change and go the other way and life could be totally different. It's happened to me more than a few times in my tennis career, so you just have to be prepared.”

Both on the court and in the press conference room, Stephens and Tiafoe provided a healthy dose of perspective and inspiration. Keep an eye on both moving forward.

90s the magic number

In her Open Era record 90th grand slam main draw appearance, Venus Williams posted her 90th Wimbledon match-win, overcoming Mihaela Buzarnescu on Tuesday in three sets to set up a second round against Tunisian Ons Jabeur.

The 41-year-old American claimed her first victory at Wimbledon since 2018 and just her second at a major this season. Williams got a shout-out from her mixed doubles partner Nick Kyrgios while she was on court.

‘Dream come true’ for Jabeur

Freshly-crowned Birmingham winner Jabeur is thrilled to get the opportunity to face five-time champion Williams on the hallowed turf of Wimbledon.

Jabeur, seeded 21 at the Championships has a friendly relationship with Williams, who has practised with her on multiple occasions and made sure to congratulate her face to face at Wimbledon after the Tunisian became the first Arab woman in history to lift a WTA title last week.

“I would love to play Venus. She’s an inspiration and a very, very nice person,” Jabeur told The National on Tuesday.

“We practised so many times and she’s always like smiling and giving her best. I really learn a lot every time I practice with her.

“I can’t wait to play her. She was very nice and happy for me when I won my first title at Birmingham. She took the time to congratulate me, support me and was very happy for me. I cannot wait to play her and it’s going to be a very interesting match.

“It’s kind of a dream come true.

Updated: June 30th 2021, 10:32 AM
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