TOKYO — When World No. 1 Novak Djokovic decided to get on a plane for Tokyo, the complexion of the Olympic tennis tournament changed instantly. Instead of being remembered for the big-name players who didn’t show up, the Tokyo Games will now be a pivot point in Djokovic’s quest for the historic “Golden Slam” – winning all four majors and Olympic gold in the same year.
But American Frances Tiafoe is perhaps one of the few players in the field here eager for the opportunity to face him.
Though he’s currently the fifth-ranked American and No. 53 in the world, a spate of Olympic defections has made Tiafoe the de facto face of the U.S. team in Tokyo. And if he ends up facing Djokovic somewhere in the draw, the 23-year-old is exactly the type of flashy, boom-or-bust type player that could be problematic for the 20-time Grand Slam champion.
“He’s a straight pro,” Tiafoe said. “His process every day is crazy. I’m not surprised he’s playing. He’s trying to achieve something extremely crazy this year, and obviously I hope I can be a guy to stop him. I love seeing greatness and if I can stop it, that would be cool. We’ll see. I don’t mind the matchup against him.”
There’s a reason Tiafoe would go into a match against Djokovic with some confidence. When they faced off in the second round at the Australian Open earlier this year, Tiafoe played excellent tennis to even the match at one set apiece and took the third set to a tiebreaker. Even in the fourth set, Tiafoe produced punishing groundstrokes and didn’t fade until the last couple games, finally succumbing after a 3½-hour battle.
“I thought we both played on a pretty high level,” Djokovic said after that match. “I mean, he pushed me to the very limit I think.”
Similar to when they met in Australia, the Tokyo Games will be played on a hard court in hot, humid conditions that bothered Djokovic. And with the Olympics being played in a best-of-three format instead of the best-of-five that Djokovic has dominated at the Grand Slams, there’s certainly more potential for the variance that a player like Tiafoe can create.
“I like more playing Novak in 2-out-of-3 than 3-out-of-5,” Tiafoe said.
Djokovic, of course, isn’t the only big-name player in the field. Despite top-10 mainstays like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem pulling out, the draw still has No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 5 Alexander Zverev and No. 7 Andrey Rublev.
On paper, it would have been a good opportunity for the highest-ranked young American players like Reilly Opelka, Taylor Fritz and Sebastian Korda to take their shot at a medal but Tiafoe jumped at the opportunity when they bowed out.
“It means everything (to be an Olympian),” he said. “That’s what it’s about. This is another milestone in my career I can check off. I’m forever an Olympian, but I’m looking forward to rubbing elbows with all the great athletes. They’re throwing you in with greatness.”
Though Tiafoe has struggled to produce week-in, week-out consistency on the ATP Tour, he’s had a knack for playing his best against the top players and on the biggest stages. He pushed Federer to five sets at the 2017 U.S. Open, reached the quarterfinals of the 2019 Australian Open and most recently knocked off Tsitsipas in the first round at Wimbledon.
“I count myself as a darkhorse at any particular moment,” he said.
And the Olympics has been a surprisingly good event for darkhorses over the years. At the height of Federer’s dominance in 2004, Chile’s Nicolas Massu created the highlight of his career by beating American Mardy Fish for the gold medal. In the 1992 event, which included players like Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Stefan Edberg in their prime years, Marc Rosset came through the draw for the gold over Jordi Arrese, a player who never advanced past the third round of a Grand Slam. And on the women’s side, Monica Puig — who had previously captured just one WTA Tour event — pulled a series of shocking upsets in Rio five years ago to win a gold medal.
“It’s a completely different format, it’s a team event, everyone is super nervous,” Tiafoe said. “You’re trying to fight for a medal. It’s not like you’re with your whole individual team. It’s different. Everyone is out of their comfort zone and how do you get comfortable being uncomfortable? I feel like for me it’s kind of open and I’m just going to have a good experience and try to play my best.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Why Frances Tiafoe wants match against Novak Djokovic
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