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At Wimbledon, Frances Tiafoe exits as Jessica Pegula hits a milestone

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WIMBLEDON, England — It’s a cruelty of some sports that the course of a 10- or 11-month season can be rife with success everywhere except for four pesky tournaments or so and still considered a disappointment. Frances Tiafoe has collected two ATP titles this season, including one on grass that came last month, and for the first time this year he entered the top 10.

Yet Sunday, in the wake of a surprisingly one-sided 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 loss to 32-year-old Grigor Dimitrov, the 25-year-old from Maryland was bereft after his third consecutive third-round loss at a Grand Slam.

“I’m top 10 in the world, and I played like I didn’t have an ATP point. I played god awful,” Tiafoe said. “It just hurts, man. I really don’t know what to say. I don’t know how I’m going to digest it. I was planning to go home and celebrate top 10. . . . It’s going to be tough to go home, and everyone’s going to be excited to see me, [and I’m] not going to want to do anything. I’ve never really felt like this after a loss. I’m shocked. Usually I rise to occasions, and I’m shocked how I performed today. It’s just crazy to me, honestly.”

While Tiafoe was lost amid his hurt and confusion, his compatriot Jessica Pegula offered perspective.

“It’s a long year. I mean, he made semis of U.S. Open last year? Yeah. So he’s okay,” she said with a smile.

Pegula knows of which she speaks. The No. 4 women’s player in the world and top-ranked American has spent much of her career feeling as though she was making progress on her fitness, her shot selection and her execution — only to lose in the first round at Grand Slams, six times in her first seven appearances in a main draw to be specific.

Yet Sunday, she advanced for the first time to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, the only major tournament at which she had yet to do so. (She has never made it further in any major.) She did it with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Lesia Tsurenko, advancing to play Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.

“Obviously I hope I can do more than that. But at the same time, it’s pretty cool to say that I’ve [made the quarterfinals] at every Slam,” Pegula said. “Just the last couple years to be able to accomplish all of that is pretty crazy. Especially here, I feel like Wimbledon is really special to make the final eight as well.”

She also netted a second-round doubles victory with partner Coco Gauff and is one of three players left competing in both the singles and doubles draws, part of a slow-building success that has left her one of the most consistent players on the women’s tour.

Her first quarterfinal at a Grand Slam was at the Australian Open in 2021. In 2022, she made it to the quarterfinals in every major except for Wimbledon and added two semifinal appearances, a finals appearance and a title at WTA 1000-level tournaments, events whose status ranks just below a Grand Slam. This year she counts an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance alongside semifinal appearances at 1000-level tournaments in Doha and Miami.

She said Sunday she has done a good job riding the momentum of every week of the long season and learning how to settle in at tournaments. Experience has made managing her emotions and energy levels easier.

“I remember when I first made the first quarterfinal of a Slam a couple years ago. I was worried because I was in [the qualifying tournament] of Doha. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be that person that made the quarters of a Slam and loses first round,’ ” Pegula said. “It’s tough to be able to carry that momentum. But I think I just kind of rolled with it, took a lot of confidence from that.”

Tiafoe has yet to experience that kind of sustained success — though, as Pegula pointed out, progress at Grand Slams sometimes takes patience.

“I understand, it’s tough losing third round. I had a spell where I couldn’t win a first round,” she said. “Then it became I would win my first two, then I would kind of lose in the third round. Now I’ve made a lot of quarters but I haven’t made a semi.”

Tiafoe’s progress hasn’t been so linear. Before last year’s U.S. Open, his best showing in a Grand Slam was at the 2019 Australian Open, where he lost to Rafael Nadal. In the 13 major tournament appearances between those two, he had five first-round exits, four second-round exits, one third-round exit and three fourth-round exits.

Last season he appeared poised to break through once and for all. Fitness and discipline became a priority, and his serve became lethal. He raised his personal expectations.

But against Dimitrov, he barely dictated points. Over the course of two days because of a rain delay, the Bulgarian wiped Tiafoe off the court in 1 hour 39 minutes, which at the time of its conclusion was the seventh-fastest match of the men’s singles tournament. Tiafoe lost the first set in 32 minutes.

Even worse: The serve he had sharpened into a blade had gone dull. Dimitrov broke him three times in the first and second sets before the match was suspended.

Tiafoe led 2-1 in the third when play resumed a little after 1:30 p.m. local time Sunday, but he was broken on his first service game and couldn’t muster any momentum after that.

“I really had high hopes for Wimbledon. I genuinely think I’m one of the best grass-court players in the world, but today I didn’t show so at all, and I’m going to have to live with that. Tennis, I mean, you’ve got to have a short memory. I’ve got to continue. But it’s going to hurt for a very long time, and we’ll see how I bounce back,” Tiafoe said. “ … I’ve got one more shot in New York. [I’ll] try to make that go. But in that sense, when it comes to the Slams, it’s been a pretty depressing season.”



POST AUTHOR: Ava Wallace

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