MELBOURNE — There is no question Frances Tiafoe will never forget his 21st birthday.
It’s the day that Tiafoe, the American-born son of Sierra Leone immigrants, secured passage to his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Playing in his 12th Grand Slam tournament and third Australian Open, the 39th-ranked Tiafoe upset 20th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria 7-5, 7-6 (6), 6-7 (1), 7-5 in 3 hours, 39 minutes on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon.
Upon victory, Tiafoe knelt down to kiss the court on Melbourne Arena and DImitrov came over to Tiafoe’s side of the net to offer congratulations, The crowd then sang an enthusiastic rendition of Happy Birthday and started chanting, “T-I-A-F-O-E.”
“I … I …” Tiafoe started before choking up and wiping tears away with his shirt. “It means the world. I worked my ass off. I told my parents 10 years ago I was going to be a pro and change my life and change their lives. And now I’m in the quarters of a Slam and I can’t believe it.”
“I would have been mad as hell if I lost on my birthday,” he added with a laugh.
Tiafoe became the second American man to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals since Andy Roddick in 2010. Tennys Sandgren did it last year.
It all started for Tiafoe at this Australian Open when he upset fifth-seeded Kevin Anderson of South Africa in a four-set, second-round encounter. He then went on to win his first career five-set victory over Andreas Seppi of Italy.
Tiafoe’s best previous Grand Slam result was journeying to the Wimbledon third round last year.
Dimitrov, playing with the benefit of coaching consultant Andre Agassi in attendance, played Tiafoe close, but couldn’t stamp down the American’s efforts.
Tiafoe posted 63 winners, with Dimitrov hitting 59. Their unforced error count was also high as both risked everything on court: Tiafoe posted 54 and Dimitrov 43.
Tiafoe had a trainer on the court a couple of times during the match, but they just seemed to have a discussion. In the end, Tiafoe did say to the crowd he was hoping not to cramp.
Tiafoe will play second-seeded Rafael Nadal for the first time in the quarterfinals. Nadal earned his spot in the next round with a 6-0, 6-1, 7-6 (4) win over Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic.
Told on the court that he was most likely looking to play Nadal, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, Tiafoe still had enough energy remaining to joke around.
“If I can play him in the quarterfinals of a Slam, he better get ready,” he said smiling. “But I better go to bed now.”
Follow Sandra Harwitt on Twitter @TennisGrapevine.