In a surprise final, American young gun Frances Tiafoe looks for a second career-title against home favourite Joao Sousa in Estoril. Neither man looked amongst the most likely title threats at the beginning of the week, with Tiafoe having just won clay court win to his name so far this year. Sousa did reach the last four in Marrakesh (lost to Andujar), but lost first round to Jaume Munar in Barcelona, a player yet to crack the top 100. But will it be home delight for Sousa or title number two for Tiafoe?
This will be a first meeting for Tiafoe and Sousa, with the American still very early on in a professional career that only began in 2015. Sousa, in contrast, turned pro a decade ago and will turn 30 next year. Unsurprisingly then, it is Sousa who has the greater level of experience, with 159 Tour-level wins to his name, compared with Tiafoe’s 24. This will be the Portuguese’s tenth final, but he has lost seven of the previous nine. Tiafoe won his only previous final earlier this season in Delray Beach.
Path to the final
Tiafoe began his tournament with a three-set win against his countryman Tennys Sandgren, who earlier in the season made the last eight in Melbourne and the final in Houston (lost to Johnson). But despite winning the first set against Tiafoe, Sandgren was unable to see the victory out, losing two tiebreaks to fall 6-3 6-7 6-7. Tiafoe backed that victory up with an impressive win against last year’s finalist and fourth seed Gilles Muller, defeating the Luxembourger 6-4 7-5.
That left him facing Italian veteran Simone Bolelli for a place in the semifinals. It was Tiafoe who booked his place in the semifinals, defeating Bolelli comfortably after overcoming some early resistance to advance 7-5 6-2. Awaiting him in the last four was defending champion and second seed Pablo Carreno Busta. The Spaniard’s season has perhaps not gone quite as he would have planned. The manner in which Tiafoe dismissed will add to his concerns as he lost 2-6 3-6.
Sousa opened his Estoril campaign with a hard-fought, but impressive, victory against Daniil Medvedev, winning through to the second round 7-6 7-5. There he had to recover from dropping the first set against his countryman Pedro Sousa, but managed to escape the upset in three, 4-6 7-6 7-5. He then won an unusually seesawing match against Kyle Edmund 6-3 1-6 6-0. Next Sousa overcame the in-form Tsitsipas in three sets, despite a mid-match wobble, reaching the final a 6-4 1-6 7-6 winner.
How do they match up?
Both men will look to play aggressive tennis from the outset and to impose themselves with their forehands as often as possible. In fact, this is a clash between two players who share a number of similar attributes. Both men cover the court well although it is Tiafoe who is the more athletic. Both possess useful serves without being amongst the elite servers in the game. And both men’s weaknesses are their backhands.
Whilst the backhand is not a glaring problem for either Tiafoe or Sousa, neither is likely to be able to do serious damage to the other with their backhand, particularly in the slower clay court conditions. That presents both with an interesting tactical choice. How far they seek to protect their own backhand and how effectively they are able to exploit their opponent’s backhand will likely prove critical in this match. All the more so if both continue to play as well as they have so far this week.
Tiafoe has arguably played the more impressive tennis so far this week, but Sousa has been able to rely on the crowd to provide that extra motivation that can prove the difference between victory and defeat. So it will prove in the final. In truth, there is little to separate the two, but the support of the crowd, and the opportunity to win a title on home soil, will provide Sousa with the slight advantage. The Portuguese to win in three sets.