'Why Not Me?' Tiafoe Saves 3 MPs, To Meet Baez In Estoril Final

Sunday’s championship match will be pair’s first ATP Head2Head meeting

Frances Tiafoe produced one of the comebacks of the 2022 season so far at the Millennium Estoril Open on Saturday night, saving three match points on his way to a dramatic victory against Sebastian Korda.

The fifth seed trailed 4-6, 2-5 in the semi-final at the ATP 250 event before rallying for a 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-4 win to the delight of an enthralled crowd in Portugal. Tiafoe now has the chance to banish the memories of his straight-sets defeat to Joao Sousa in the 2018 championship match when he takes on Sebastian Baez in Sunday’s final.

The Tiafoe-Baez final clash will be the culmination of an intriguing story that has played out this week in Portugal. Throughout the tournament, Baez has written “Why not me?” on the television camera’s lens after his wins. The positivity has worked ⁠— the Argentine surged past defending champion Albert Ramos-Vinolas 6-3, 6-7(7), 6-0 on Saturday to leave him just one victory from claiming his first ATP Tour title.

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So where did Baez's motto come from? The Argentine and his coach, Sebastian Gutierrez, had seen Tiafoe wearing a bracelet with ‘Why not me?’ written on it and liked it so much that the 21-year-old started writing it on screen as part of his post-match routine.

“He told me that in the locker room a couple of days ago,” said Tiafoe when asked about Baez’s inspiration. “I’ve been wearing it so long, I didn’t even know what he was talking about.

“After he won today, I said ‘Why not me?’ to him again. It’s cool. Any kind of inspiration, that stuff matters, it goes a long way. I think belief in yourself is the biggest thing. It doesn’t matter if everyone else around you doesn’t believe in you. If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s tough to go far in life.

“Obviously that kid has a lot of belief in himself, but I hope he doesn’t believe too much tomorrow!”

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Tiafoe made the early running in his match against eighth-seeded Korda, opening up a 3-1 lead, but Korda broke twice to recover 2-4 and take the opening set and then surged to a 5-2 lead in the second as he stayed solid behind his groundstrokes to soak up his opponent's aggressive play.

Tiafoe has been wearing a second bracelet with the inscription ‘Prove them wrong’ in Portugal, and the World No. 29 channelled that mantra to come soaring back into the match as his explosive groundstrokes began to find the lines. The 2018 finalist saved three match points on the way to forcing a second-set tie-break, one at 2-5 and two at 4-5. With momentum behind him, Tiafoe took the tie-break 7/2 to the delight of the Saturday night crowd.

Even after establishing a 4-1 lead in the deciding set, closing out the match proved difficult for Tiafoe as Korda overcame his mid-match lapse to level at 4-4. There was time for one final twist, however, as Tiafoe broke to love in the 10th game to extend his lead in the pair’s ATP Head2Head series to 3-0.

“I knew it was going to be really tough, Sebastian has been killing everybody this week,” said Tiafoe. “I knew he was going to be fresh and have a lot of legs. I came out pretty good, but I went on a bad streak serving. This crowd definitely kept me in it, for sure.”

Sunday’s clash with Baez will be the first tour-level final of 2022 for Tiafoe, who lifted his sole ATP Tour trophy at Delray Beach in 2018.

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Like in Tiafoe’s win over Korda, there was match point drama for Baez in his semi-final too. The Argentine was relieved to recover from missing two match point chances in the second-set tie-break to clinch the win.

”I just tried to continue the game [after the second-set tie-break],” said Baez. “Maybe he played a little bit better, but I knew if I continued the level, it was so close. I made two big mistakes in the tie-break, and I paid [for them]. In the third set Ramos was more tired than me, so I tried to [use] that.

“The first match point, he served well. The second, I had one easy ball so [that’s something] to take and do better tomorrow, because it’s a final. It’s always difficult, so I have to do it like today, but better.”

Baez has needed three sets in three of his four matches this week at the Portuguese ATP 250, but has looked strong when it has mattered most. Baez won a jaw-dropping 75 per cent of his return points against Spanish veteran Ramos-Vinolas in the deciding set to triumph after two hours and 35 minutes.

The Argentine, who is at a career-high No. 59 in the ATP Rankings, held match point at 6/5 and 7/6 in the second-set tie-break. On his first chance, he missed a return. On his second, this time serving, he ripped an aggressive inside-out forehand wide.

But that misstep did not come back to haunt Baez. Although Ramos-Vinolas forced a decider, he was unable to maintain his level in the third set. Baez also defeated Ramos-Vinolas in this year’s Santiago semi-finals before losing to Pedro Martinez in the final.

Reporting contributed by Marcos Zugasti.

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