Monday, October 10, 2016

Tiafoe, 18, cracks top 100 with Stockton title

Third-seeded Frances Tiafoe, right, beat unseeded Noah Rubin
6-4, 6-2 in a matchup of U.S. prospects in the final of the
$100,000 Stockton Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
   STOCKTON, Calif. -- Northern California fans might want to check out this week's $100,000 Fairfield Challenger at Solano Community College.
   It probably will be their last chance to see Frances Tiafoe in person. Barring injury or a prolonged slump, the 18-year-old phenom will graduate to Grand Slam and ATP World Tour events next year. So far, Tiafoe has only dabbled in the major leagues of men's professional tennis.
   By outclassing fellow American prospect Noah Rubin 6-4, 6-2 Sunday to win the $100,000 Stockton Challenger at the new Eve Zimmerman Tennis Center at the University of the Pacific, the third-seeded Tiafoe cracked the top 100 in the world for the first time.
   "It's an unbelievable feeling, something you always dream of and work as hard as you can to achieve," gushed Tiafoe, who jumped 17 spots to No. 100. "It (helps immensely) to be inside the top 100, getting in the main draw of Grand Slams and tour events. It definitely makes your life much easier; you don't have to play so many of these (Challenger) events."
   Tiafoe becomes the youngest player, fourth teenager and second American teen in the top 100. Alexander Zverev, 19, of Germany is No. 21; Borna Coric, 19, of Croatia is No. 41; and Taylor Fritz, 18, of Rancho Santa Fe in the San Diego area is No. 71. Fritz will turn 19 on Oct. 28, and Tiafoe will follow on Jan. 20.
   American Jared Donaldson, who turned 20 Sunday, dropped from No. 98 to No. 108 in the new rankings. Fritz won the singles titles in last year's Sacramento and Fairfield Challengers with victories over Donaldson and Dustin Brown of Germany, respectively. The Sacramento tournament moved to Stockton.
   Although Tiafoe eventually could reach the top 10, his immediate task is staying in the top 100. He will drop unless he at least matches his 2015 appearance in the semifinals in Fairfield, where he's the top seed, and runner-up finish in the $50,000 Knoxville (Tenn.) Challenger, scheduled for the first week of November.
Tiafoe didn't face a break point in the final.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Tiafoe has ideal size (6-foot-2 and 170 pounds or 1.88 meters and 77 kilograms) with power, touch, quickness -- you name it. His serve and forehand, both hit with a distinctive loose wrist, are devastating. His two-handed backhand is textbook perfect. And he has a deft volley.
   Weaknesses? Tiafoe has had temper problems (it was not an issue against Rubin), his concentration wanes at times (whose doesn't?), and his second serve needs improvement (according to Isner).
   Tiafoe's father, Constant, emigrated from Sierra Leone in West Africa to the Washington, D.C., area, where Frances was born, in the late 1990s. Constant helped build the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., and stayed as the head of maintenance.
   Frances and his twin brother Franklin, who attended the Stockton Challenger, began playing at 3 or 4. Frances won the prestigious Orange Bowl at 15 in 2013 to become the youngest boys 18 champion in the tournament's 67-year history. He was profiled in Sports Illustrated in 2014 and turned pro last year.
   As a wild card the recent U.S. Open, Tiafoe led 6-foot-10 (2.08-meter) veteran John Isner, seeded No. 20 and ranked No. 1 in the United States at the time, two sets to none in the first round before falling in a fifth-set tiebreaker.
   Rubin, only 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and 155 pounds (70 kilograms), doesn't have as much of an upside as Tiafoe but well could join him in the top 100 next year. With his runner-up finish, he improved 25 places to No. 167.
   A counterpuncher who relies on quickness, Rubin stunned then-No. 18 Benoit Paire of France in the first round of the Australian Open in January but missed much of the summer with a sprained ankle.
   A native of Long Island, N.Y., Rubin trained at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York as a junior. During his dream summer of 2014, he won the Wimbledon boys and USTA 18 national singles titles.
   Rubin then attended Wake Forest University for one year, falling in the 2015 NCAA singles final to 6-foot-4 (1.93-meter) junior Ryan Shane of Virginia, before turning pro.
Rubin could join Tiafoe in the top 100 next year.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Tiafoe and Rubin, 20, met as pros for the first time. Rubin was 3-0 in ITF junior tournaments against Tiafoe.
   This time, Tiafoe broke the unseeded Rubin in the first game of each set and broke again to lead 4-1 in the second set. Rubin double-faulted on key points in both of the second-set breaks. Tiafoe, meanwhile, never faced break point en route to his second Challenger title in his seventh final.
   "He was pretty nervous," declared Tiafoe, who earned $14,400. "He made a lot of mistakes. He obviously didn't play his best, but I thought I played my game about as well as I can play. I played pretty aggressive, took the strikes early and didn't really let him stay steady and try to make balls the way he usually plays. I thought I did a great job of putting a lot of pressure on him early."
   Tiafoe won the coin toss and elected to receive.
   "I always do that," he noted. "I don't want to come out and play a loose game in the opening game, so if I win the coin toss, I always receive.
   "I knew he was going to be a little nervous. It was only his second (Challenger) final, and I've been in quite a few finals, so I was pretty comfortable today."
   Rubin, who won his only previous Challenger final, denied he was nervous.
   "Actually, that did not affect me," said Rubin, wearing a necklace with a small Wimbledon pendant. "I was way more nervous to play the first round of this tournament. Maybe there was some internal, subconscious thing I can't even tell you. Yeah, I was a little slower than normal, but it happens."
   Instead, Rubin attributed his slow starts in each set to physical and mental fatigue. He won his first three matches in three sets before coasting past ailing Michael Mmoh, another 18-year-old American, 6-2, 6-3 in Saturday's semifinals.
   "It could be just cumulative," suggested Rubin, who collected $8,480. "It's a lot of matches, a lot of games. I put a lot of pressure on myself at the beginning of the tournament, more than at the end, because I was not playing my best tennis coming into this tournament. I was just working hard and putting in a lot of hours, and sometimes it wears on you."
   Against Tiafoe, there would be no Noah's bagels.
   "He played good tennis," said Rubin, who also is entered in Fairfield. "He mixed it up well. I think what hurt me the most was my movement was not (up to) par, which usually helps me get back into matches.
Second-seeded Sam Groth, left, and Brian Baker won the
doubles title in their first tournament together. Photo by
Paul Bauman
   "He kept me on my toes and didn't play loose points. I've been watching some of his matches, and sometimes he gives away loose points. He was pretty controlled today and consistent. It was good to see. He's in the top 100 now, and hopefully I'll see him there soon."
   Second-seeded Brian Baker and Sam Groth, playing their first tournament together, beat fourth-seeded Matt Reid and John-Patrick Smith 6-2, 4-6 [10-2] for the doubles title. All except Baker, from Nashville, Tenn., are Australian.
   Baker, 31, and Groth, who will turn 29 on Oct. 19, ended Reid and Smith's winning streak at seven matches. They won the title in the previous week's $100,000 Tiburon Challenger.
   Baker has come back from 11 operations (both hips, right elbow, back, sports hernia and four repairs of his right knee). Groth set an unofficial world record with a 163.7-mph (263.4-kph) serve in the 2012 Busan (South Korea) Challenger.
   Here are:
   --The complete Stockton singles and doubles draws.
   --The Fairfield singles qualifying draw, singles and doubles main draws, and Monday's schedule.
   --The complete Redding (Calif.) women's singles and doubles draws.

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