©Colette Lewis 2015--
Frances Tiafoe was down a set and a break to No. 5 seed Alejandro Falla of Colombia Tuesday afternoon in the first round of the Champaign Challenger at the University of Illinois' Atkins Tennis Center, but fought his way to a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory to keep his Australian Open wild card hopes alive.
Falla had just come back from 0-40 down serving at 0-1 in the second set, then broke the 17-year-old to take a 2-1 lead. In the last tournament of the year, coming off a final two days ago in the Knoxville Challenger, Tiafoe had a decision to make.
"Mentally, I really wasn't ready to play going on court," said Tiafoe, who was down 3-0 with two breaks in the first set before recovering. "There was a lot of negativity...the last tournament of the year, I had a good week last week, it's tough. The body's feeling it, you're playing a good player, it's not bad if you lose this match. But there's a lot a stake this week for me. Down a set and a break I was being an idiot, saying dumb stuff, and I was like ok, am I going to throw this away or am I going to compete?"
Falla went up 30-0 in his next service game, but Tiafoe began to match the 32-year-old's level, and winning two long rallies gave him renewed energy. At 30-40, Falla double faulted, and Tiafoe, whose defense kept him in the points until then, began to take control.
"One thing led to another," said Tiafoe. "I started digging, he started missing. I started playing really well and I'm happy to move on to the second round."
Tiafoe had to save two break points serving for the second set at 5-3, with Falla missing two returns, including one on a second serve to bring it back to deuce. Two aces and a forehand winner, with a forehand shank in between gave Tiafoe the set, and he took a 5-0 lead in the third set, as Falla's errors began to pile up. Tiafoe couldn't serve out the set the first time, and saw two match points come and go in Falla's service game, but he finished it on his second attempt, with Falla's errors again providing assistance.
Tiafoe can win the USTA's Australian Open wild card this week, as he is now in second place in the race, with the leader, Noah Rubin, out of the tournament and unable to gain any more points. But Tiafoe, who is assured of making the Australian Open qualifying, isn't focusing on that particular prize.
"I'm not really thinking about that too much," said Tiafoe, currently at an ATP career high of 182. If I win this, maybe I'm 150, and that's more what I'm thinking. I just want to end the year strong here, don't have the mentality that it's the last tournament of the year, just throw it away. Just go out there, compete, and have fun. If a guy outbattles me, then too good."
Tiafoe will play Eric Quigley in the second round on Wednesday.
UCLA junior Mackenzie McDonald also needed to come back from a set down to advance to the second round, defeating Illinois senior Jared Hiltzik 3-6, 6-1, 6-0. Hiltzik, a wild card, got the sole break of the first set, while holding his own serve easily throughout. McDonald, who won three qualifying matches, two of them from a set down, was not about to panic after the first set.
"The first set he served really well," said McDonald, who reached the semifinals and quarterfinals of two Challengers in Northern California this fall. "He aced me a lot and was very tricky there. I might have been going for a little too much, but in the second set I kind of calmed down. I served better, and I don't think he served as well, so I took advantage of that and was attacking."
McDonald, who is currently in school at UCLA, is still undecided about the timing of his turning pro.
"It's nice I'm having these results," said the 20-year-old. "It means I can play at this level and it's where I want to be. But as far as turning pro, I'm not too sure it's going to happen yet. We'll see."
McDonald will play No. 3 seed Ryan Harrison Wednesday night.
Champaign has not one but two qualifiers with UCLA ties, with Clay Thompson collecting his first Challenger win by defeating former Illinois All-American Dennis Nevolo, a wild card, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(2).
The 23-year-old Californian, who doesn't shy away from displaying his emotions or approaching the net, was down 0-40 at 4-4 in the second set, only to hold and break to extend the match. Nevolo earned the first break of the third set at 5-5, but he was unable to serve out the match, with Thompson hitting one of his many forehand winners at 30-40.
The tiebreaker was all Thompson, with his serve and his forehand earning him two mini-breaks, which was all he needed. Thompson will face No. 8 seed Blaz Rola of Slovenia, who won his NCAA title at Illinois in 2013, in Wednesday's second round.
Other US winners on Tuesday included No. 2 seed Austin Krajicek, who defeated qualifier Raymond Sarmiento 6-4, 6-4, and Mitchell Krueger, who beat Jared Donaldson by the same score.
I will be at the tournament again on Wednesday for the early matches, which include Taylor Fritz against Knoxville champion Daniel Evans of Great Britain, Krajicek versus Adrien Bossel of Switzerland and the Tiafoe-Quigley contest.
Complete draws and the order of play are available at the ATP Challenger site, which also provides the links to live streaming.