Then, the 18-year-old won a comfortable straight-setter.
Next, the two 19-year-olds battled for two hours of exhausting rallies.
Then, the other 17-year-old went up a set and the narrative was rounding into shape.
American teens have made themselves the story of the 2015 Charlottesville Men's Pro Challenger, with 6 of them making the second round and it seemed like four of them set for the quarterfinals.
But Alex Kuznetsov had other ideas.
|Alex Kuznetsov. ©Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise|
"Frances was playing too well in the first set," said Kuznetsov. "I tried to keep up with him, pace-wise, but he was just too good. Kind of got lucky there in the second, he made a couple of unforced errors, a couple of double faults, gave me the early break. That got my confidence up, started serving a lot better."
It was clear that Tiafoe fully expected to win the match, and so did plenty of observers even after the early second set break. The key game was when Kuznetsov was serving at 4*-3 in the second set. Tiafoe had just toughed out a hold, and it seemed that if the break was going to come, it was then. But Kuznetsov hit three aces in the game, and what was a frustrated Tiafoe became a forlorn Tiafoe. Kuznetsov held and didn't lose another game.
"I needed it bad, especially that game," said Kuznetsov. "A 4-3 game in any set is crucial. So it was a big hold for me, and I broke in the next game, which just gave me confidence going into the third set. Something clicked for me, I took my time between points, raised my toss a bit, little things like that."
When I noted he was the only non-teen to win today, Kuznetsov snarled, "Enough of these young guys...." Okay, he didn't snarl. In fact he smiled. "They're all so good, so tough, have such bright futures ahead of them. It's going to be another tough one tomorrow night against Tommy."
Tommy is Tommy Paul, the 18-year-old who beat 32-year-old Frederik Nielsen of Denmark in 69 minutes. Paul broke the 2012 Wimbledon doubles champion, who was struggling with an upper back/lower neck injury, five times in route to a 6-3 6-3 win. He ended the match with a massive forehand-down-the-line return.
On facing the veteran Dane, Paul said, "He had some of the best returns I've ever played against. I had to really stay calm when he hit really good returns. The first step after the serve is big against him because you never know where the return's going to go. He's very tricky, has all the shots from the baseline, very very good at net, good at changing directions."
Paul went into the match a perfect 6-0 in challenger first rounds, but an imperfect 0-5 in challenger second rounds. "I don't really look at that too much but obviously I knew about it. My mom texted me after my first round here. She was just like, 'You're 6-0 in the first round of Challengers and 0-5 in the second round.'"
Now, Paul is into his first challenger quarterfinal. I mentioned that Nielsen said the North Carolinian already played a "man's game" at 18 years old and Paul smiled. "Umm, that's kind of our goal right now. I wanted to take this step from playing as a junior to a pro this year. That was the main goal. For him to say that, that's great. That's my goal."
The other quarterfinal that was set up was between two friends and familiar foes: Stefan Kozlov and Noah Rubin. The last time they faced each other was in the 2014 Wimbledon junior boys' final, a match that Rubin won 6-4 4-6 6-3. Both had to go through qualifying to reach the Charlottesville main draw.
Kozlov came back against David Rice, a talented Brit who also qualified and then upset #2 seed James Duckworth in the first round. Things did not start well for Kozlov.
"I came out not feeling the court, I wasn't feeling my strings a lot, I didn't feel good out there with my hip," said Kozlov. "I wasn't feeling fresh and David was playing well. It was a really tough outing today.
"At one point in the second set I was down a set and 4-2 and 15-0 and it was almost a breaking point. And I just happened to stay in it, compete, and was really lucky to get out of that moment."
Kozlov struggled to get wins for much of the year. But last month, he took a trip to Europe that garnered him a semifinal, a final, and his first pro singles title -- the latter two results in Minsk, Belarus.
The Macedonia-born, Russian-heritage Kozlov called Europe "one of my favorite places to play. I was obviously struggling with matches a little bit, and I went to visit some family in Belarus, and played some good tournaments, some good players over there. I had a lot of fun and it paid off."
As for Noah, his exceptional speed and relentless defense helped wear down his opponent, who had beaten him in the semifinals of the 2013 USTA Boys National Championships. Rubin won a 6-4 1-6 6-3 lung-buster.
OTR: Is it your goal to be the biggest pain in the ass (to play against) in professional tennis?
NR: I'm 5'9", 5'10 maybe on a good day -- I think they're lying on the ATP site. I can't hit 150 [mph] serves like Opelka, so I'm going to try to be in the best shape possible, and make people's lives a living hell so they want to get off the court quicker.
OTR: You look like you could have gone another two sets
NR: I've been really working on my nutrition and training and I think it's really been paying off lately. I've been working with a guy, Richard Mensing. He's been a big help so far, and it's paying off in the short run.
OTR: That first few games of the 3rd set, you maybe not wore him out, but made enough of a pest of yourself
NR: Yeah, I had some opportunities, he had some opportunities, I just kept plugging away. He seemed a little bit .. anxious ... at some important times and it showed when I broke him. I just stuck with it, kept my backhand to his back hand, which was a good exchange, and just kept it going.
OTR: He's got a really good backhand, though. Why do you think that's a good match-up for you?
NR: I feel like my backhand's always going to be there no matter what. I felt very confident with it today, and I didn't feel I could miss a ball on that side. I kept it going until I found my opening, and then my forehand -- I felt a lot more confident with it today and I hit it when I needed to, and it was good.
OTR: Do you feel like you got a measure of revenge from Kalamazoo?
NR: Yeah that was a long time ago, I think we've both matured since then. It was a weird, interesting match. He got the better of me that day. I can't say much -- I'm 500 [ATP ranking], he's 130 in the world or whatever. I can't say I'm completely winning at the moment. But it was a good match and I felt comfortable today.
OTR: I think you are just entering the Top 500 with this win. What does that mean to you?
NR: Not too much. I'm not playing to be 480 in the world or whatever it's going to be. I'm just getting in the best shape possible, getting my game to where I think it should be, and just progressing and the ranking should hopefully come with that. So it's not really a measure at the moment.
OTR: Tell me about your next opponent.
NR: Stefan? The last match was Wimbledon ...
OTR: Will you ask the tournament director to find some grass courts for you?
NR: [Laughs] I think it was just who was less nervous that day. I look back and, you know what, that wasn't either of our best tennis. But this should be a great match. We're really good friends and we have been for a while. So it should be fun to get out there.
OTR: Have you been playing any doubles at all?
NR: No, I know it's more money and a great way to get some rhythm, but it's just a lot of tennis. Tomorrow is my 6th match -- I know it's Stefan's 6th match also -- but it's a lot of tennis if you're playing doubles also. So I usually don't focus on that.
OTR: Tell me about life in the Futures.
NR: Life in the Futures is a place you don't want to be for too long, but obviously you have to pay your dues -- almost every player does, whether it's two tournaments or 50. So I'm trying to make my time there as short as possible and hopefully this tournament will help me out.
OTR: You had some good wins in Canada.
NR: Yeah, I was unlucky to play a tough competitor, Frank Dancevic, who's been inside the Top 100, so to get him in both tournaments, the quarters and semis, is a tough thing, and he was going on 20 matches in a row. So that was tough. I played some good matches over all and got some points there, and earlier in the summer, and some here.
OTR: Are you asking for wild cards at these events?
NR: I am. It's been a while since I got one, hopefully in one of these next two events I will.
OTR: It's tough with so many guys your age or younger who are all...
NR: Yeah. The USTA is trying to help me out. Obviously they have direct USTA tennis players, but hopefully I'll get one. But I can't complain -- my best tournaments have been from qualifying, and if I don't get the help needed... It's a very simple sport: you win and you move on. So you can't really complain if you don't get [wild cards].
OTR: Have you made an official decision about returning to Wake Forest?
NR: I have not. I feel comfortable in the pros, and obviously this tournament helps that decision a little bit, but I'm just going to keep playing, enjoying myself.
OTR: Is the Australian Open wild card, now that you're into a quarterfinal, on your mind?
NR: No. It's just like a ranking -- I feel it kind of clogs the brain a little bit. It's just another tennis match, wild card is huge and playing the Australian Open is great, and whoever gets it -- an amazing opportunity. But I hope it's not my last opportunity. I'm just going to keep playing matches, keep running, and whatever happens, happens.