MELBOURNE, Australia — Could the 2019 Australian Open be the Grand Slam tournament in which a budding cast of young American men breaks through?
The odds remain against that happening — thanks in part to a guy named Roger Federer — and there remains much tennis to be played. But after a pair of second-round upsets by Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz on Wednesday, the stage just might be set.
The first surprise came when Tiafoe, who turns 21 on Sunday, finished off fifth-seeded Kevin Anderson behind powerful forehands and serves. It was the biggest win of Tiafoe’s young career and the biggest shock of the tournament so far.
“C’mon!” he shouted, rolling up his right shirt sleeve, then thumping his right biceps repeatedly with his left hand, a move that seemed freighted with both bravado and relief. Tiafoe, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone who learned the game at the Maryland tennis club where his father was a custodian, has long been touted as a prodigious talent. But he has also seemed burdened by the weight of expectations.
“It means the world to me,” Tiafoe told a crowd he had clearly won over during the tense three-hour match.
The arena scoreboard flashed with the final score, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5, telling a story of its own. Early on, Anderson had pushed ahead, leading by 3-0 in the second set after winning the first. Then Tiafoe turned the tide.
“I lost to Kevin three times last year,” Tiafoe, ranked No. 39, explained in an on-court interview. “I was down a set and break today. I went to a different place. I dug deep. It’s just how bad you want it, and I wanted it bad.”
Indeed, in the beginning, it looked as if Tiafoe might soon be flying home for more practice at the United States Tennis Association’s campus in Orlando, Fla., where many young American hopefuls train. But then he altered his approach — and flashed the kind of game that he will have to employ if he is to get past Andreas Seppi of Italy, a tour veteran ranked No. 35, in the third round.
He had decided to “kind of just mix it up,” he explained. “Play smarter. Don’t try to go for cannons. Be unpredictable.” Once he settled on a game plan, Tiafoe was particularly effective mixing a slew of low-bouncing slices into his powerful repertoire, forcing Anderson out of his comfort zone, making Anderson bend and contort his 6-foot-8 frame.
How far can Tiafoe go at this tournament? When I posed that question to him, he was succinct. “To the third round, man,” he said, before laughing slyly.
Should Tiafoe beat Seppi on Friday, he would find himself deeper in a Grand Slam tournament than he has ever been. Maybe because he’s keenly aware of that fact, he leaned on a tried-and-true sports cliché — but one that might show he has enough locked-in maturity to do real damage right now. He said he couldn’t afford to consider anything more than the next match.
“Look at today, I mean, he is five in the world,” Tiafoe said, referring to Anderson, who is actually ranked No. 6. “I was able to beat him. It’s so tight now. Anybody plays a good match, you can beat anybody on a given day.”
Fritz, 21, a Californian ranked 50th, can only hope those last words ring true. Shortly after Tiafoe’s win, Fritz upset 30th-seeded Gaël Monfils of France, 6-3, 6-7 (8), 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5). The match featured some of the most exquisite shotmaking of the tournament’s opening days.
Like Tiafoe, Fritz has never advanced past the third round of a major. But Fritz’s next opponent is Federer, the two-time defending champion and No. 3 seed. The two have played only once: Federer won a tight three-setter on grass in 2016, as Fritz was just starting out on the tour.
“I learned my lesson last time we played,” Fritz said. “I won the second set, and it was one of the most amazing feelings I have ever had playing tennis, winning a set off Roger Federer! And then we were deep in the third and I had a chance to break his serve, and I started thinking: Oh my God, I am about to beat Federer. I might beat Federer.
“And then that thinking definitely lost me the match pretty quick. I didn’t win another game after that. I have definitely learned I just have to treat it like any other match.”
Playing Federer in Melbourne will not be any other match, of course. Same for Tiafoe, when he battles Seppi. But both matches present a real opportunity.
“Between Frances and Taylor today, we saw something different, something better, an intensity and composure I have never seen before,” said Martin Blackman, the U.S.T.A.’s general manager for player development. “All of our players can learn from this.”
Blackman oversees a group that includes the 7-footer Reilly Opelka, 21, who upset ninth-seeded John Isner on Monday before losing a five-setter on Wednesday, and Mackenzie McDonald, 23, the former N.C.A.A. champion who fell in four tight sets to sixth-seeded Marin Cilic.
If any of the young American men are to begin making a bona fide dent in pro tennis, there is no better time to start than now.
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