12:21 AM GMT January 21, 2019
What's the best birthday gift Frances Tiafoe could give himself? How about a first Grand Slam quarter-final at the Australian Open.
Tiafoe made a massive statement on one of the game's biggest stages, punching his ticket into the last eight at Melbourne Park on Sunday. On his 21st birthday, the #NextGenATP star upset 20th seed Grigor Dimitrov 7-5, 7-6(6), 6-7(1), 7-5 to secure his spot in the quarter-finals.
"It's crazy, man," said Tiafoe. "I obviously [am not] a normal tennis story. At the beginning of my career, I was playing for them, trying to do everything for my family. Obviously, now I put them in a great place. Now I'm trying to do it for me."
If there was any doubt of Tiafoe's arrival, the Maryland native stepped up in the big moments and played the match of his young career. He is the youngest American to reach the Australian Open quarter-finals since a 20-year-old Andy Roddick advanced to the semi-finals in 2003.
Tiafoe fired 63 winners in total to prevail after three hours and 39 minutes, setting a quarter-final clash against Rafael Nadal. It has been a breakout fortnight for the World No. 39, having earned the biggest win of his young career (by ATP Ranking) over sixth-ranked Kevin Anderson in the second round, followed by his first five-set win over Andreas Seppi, before stunning Dimitrov.
It was a picture perfect Sunday afternoon on Melbourne Arena and Tiafoe would fight through a gritty opening set to take the early lead. They would exchange leads as the set progressed, but it was a more energetic and aggressive Tiafoe who eventually captured the opener after 52 minutes. And with his back against the wall in the second set, the 21-year-old would show immense poise under pressure.
Tiafoe clawed back from a 4-2 deficit to force a tie-break, where he would save a pair of set points. A sublime half-volley drop shot swung the match to his corner. Unrattled and dialed in, Tiafoe exhibited his growing maturity as he snatched a two-set lead.
Dimitrov would not go down without a fight. With Tiafoe in firm control up two sets and a break, his Bulgarian opponent found a second gear. Trailing 2-4, proceedings would suddenly shift to Dimitrov's side of the net, as he broke right back and seized control in improbable fashion. He would take the ensuing tie-break and seemed to be on his way to a stunning comeback.
But this was Tiafoe's day and, despite calling for the physio for muscle cramps, he would not acquiesce to defeat. With Dimitrov leading 5-4 in the fourth set, Tiafoe reeled off 12 of the last 14 points to clinch the victory.
Tiafoe got his revenge on Dimitrov following the Bulgarian's victory at the Rogers Cup last year, where he survived in a third-set tie-break. He will next face Rafael Nadal in what will be his first meeting with the World No. 2.
"I'm so excited to play Rafa," said Tiafoe. "We're going to have some fun, going to have some long rallies... Obviously [Rod Laver] will be there. Playing arguably one of the greatest tennis players of all time. [I will] just have some fun out there."
Tiafoe's victory also marks the second straight year in which an American has reached the last eight at the Australian Open, with Tennys Sandgren achieving the feat in 2018.
Meanwhile, Dimitrov's first Grand Slam alongside new coach Andre Agassi concludes with a Round of 16 finish. He has reached the fourth round in Melbourne in five of the past six years. The 2017 Nitto ATP Finals champion is targeting a return to the Top 10 this year with Agassi in his corner, having entered the tournament at No. 21 in the ATP Rankings.
"I just wasn't able to execute some shots that I really needed to. Especially in that [second-set] tie-break," said Dimitrov. "As much as I was playing better and better, he just kept coming back with some good answers... I fought to the extent that I thought I could. On certain moments, I could definitely have hit a better shot. It is how the game goes sometimes."