As soon as Frances Tiafoe cracked the ace that earned him a 6-1, 6-4 win over Peter Gojowczyk in the Delray Beach final Sunday, he collapsed and lay on his back in the dazzling Florida sunshine, arms flung at his sides.
While the thrill of his victory was no doubt justified, the 20-year-old wild card was also gassed following a breakthrough week -- one that kept placing the physical and mental bar ever higher for Tiafoe as he advanced through the draw. That spread-eagle moment probably gave him a brief moment of reprieve as well.
"I had lots of tough matches, lots of late nights and some trouble sleeping," Tiafoe said in his on-court interview, shortly after picking himself up and strolling over to share his joy with his support team.
Tiafoe also cut short speculation about his immediate future. "I'm not thinking about the rest of the year; I just want to get some sleep."
But the rest of the year looks a lot better now than it did just a few weeks ago. Tiafoe, one of the heralded #NextGenATP fleet of young players, had looked more like a candidate for #NextBust in the first six weeks of the year. He accumulated a meager three wins in five tournaments, which included the Australian Open but also a lowly Challenger event. He nearly drove off the top-100 cliff in mid-February and arrived at the New York Open ranked No. 98.
But Tiafoe perked up at that event, achieving the first ATP quarterfinal of his career. He then arrived in Delray just a day before his first match, against Matthew Ebden, who had easily handled Tiafoe in his debut match earlier this year in Brisbane.
Tiafoe evened that score, then went on to take out a string of quality opponents. If it seemed that No. 64 Gojowczyk was low-hanging fruit in the final, it was only because Tiafoe had already swept most of the blue-chip contenders off the board. First it was Juan Martin de Potro, then two of Tiafoe's more successful #NextGen rivals, Hyeon Chung and Denis Shapovalov.
This was a "pinch me" run for the Maryland native, because Tiafoe grew up idolizing del Potro. Chung was an Australian Open semifinalist, and Shapovalov is a "great friend" -- but also a slightly younger generational rival who had bolted ahead of Tiafoe in the next-big-thing sweepstakes.
The degree of difficulty shouldn't be overlooked for Tiafoe. He needed seven match points to get past Chung in a match that was delayed by rain and played over two days. Tiafoe then had to play his semifinal against Shapovalov later that same day. In the final, Tiafoe met Gojowczyk on a bright, windy afternoon after tussling with all his previous opponents in night matches.
"Look at the variety of guys he beat," Tennis Channel commentator Paul Annacone said. "When a guy gets through despite rain delays, against a diversity of opponents, playing his first day match, you have to admire his composure. They threw a lot at Tiafoe this week."
Martin Blackman, general manager for USTA player development, was deeply impressed by the performance of the emerging star.
"I saw a lot of maturity in the way Frances managed a difficult week," Blackman told ESPN.com. "There was a lot of pressure there, but Frances stayed super focused. This tournament looked like a coming-of-age event for him."
Maturity and stamina are one thing, winning the battle of the stat sheet quite another. Against Shapovalov, Tiafoe won 84 percent of his first-serve points while converting 70 percent of those first serves. Easily as important, Tiafoe won 35 percent of his return points (compared with just 23 by Shapovalov).
In the final, Tiafoe's numbers were even better. He won 89 percent of his first-serve points and 48 total points returning, 18 more than his opponent. Gojowczyk was somewhat hampered by a sore thigh that required an injury timeout. It's the kind of curveball that could sabotage the composure of a first-time finalist, but Tiafoe handled it well.
"He beat almost all the American guys," Tiafoe quipped. "I'm happy I stopped him."
You can thank Frances Tiafoe for that.