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Why Frances Tiafoe could be the last American standing at the French Open

By the time Frances Tiafoe made it around the net to embrace clay-caked Joao Sousa, the first native son to win the title in Estoril, Portugal, the young American was on the verge of tears -- and not because he had just lost a final, only the second of his career.

"The way [Sousa] felt afterward, it almost brought tears to me," Tiafoe told the media after Sunday's final. "I know it was a really big win for him. The whole country was behind him. I respected that. And he's a great guy, always been nice to me."

There isn't much room in competitive tennis for the kind of empathy Tiafoe felt for Sousa on the tennis court. This 6-4, 6-4 loss will go down as a learning experience for Tiafoe -- one that may come in handy in the coming weeks, should he find himself having to match wits with sly Fabio Fognini before an Italian crowd in Rome, or exchanging forehand bullets with Gael Monfils with a stadium full of Frenchmen crying "Allez!" with every juke by "LaMonf" at Roland Garros.

Those scenarios aren't implausible, as Tiafoe could be the American player who goes deepest at the Italian Open or French Open. There's no denying that, as he showed in Estoril. As of Monday, the 20-year-old Tiafoe is ranked a career-high No. 57. This could be a breakout year for him, and he has none of the hang-ups so many Americans feel about the red clay of Europe.

Tiafoe's finish in Estoril makes him the first American man to play a final on European clay since Brian Baker made the final in Nice in 2012. Baker was a junior French Open runner-up whose promising career was irrevocably damaged by injuries.

"I grew up playing a lot on clay," Tiafoe told ESPN.com during the Miami Open. "Maybe I had a little more success on hard courts, but there are more tournaments on hard. I feel good on clay. I've always enjoyed playing on it."

On his way up the pro ladder, Tiafoe was 2-3 in clay-court finals on the ATP Challenger and ITF Futures tours, and 3-4 on hard courts. On the main tour, Tiafoe won his first ATP title on hard courts at Delray Beach earlier this year. Estoril was his second final.

Tiafoe had noteworthy wins at both tournaments. At Delray, he upended No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro and two of his #Nextgen rivals, Denis Shapovalov and No. 22 Hyeon Chung. In Estoril, he beat Gilles Muller and No. 2 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, a clay-court expert and former Estoril champ. He also saved three match points in his first-round win over fellow American Tennys Sandgren.

"I beat some quality players this week," Tiafoe said in Estoril. "I'm on cloud nine."

Tiafoe has positioned himself alongside Steve Johnson and John Isner as one of the three Americans most likely to make a strong showing at the French Open. Isner has gone the deepest -- the fourth round, twice. Johnson has won some matches, too.

Tiafoe, on the other hand, has been frustrated in his first two attempts at Roland Garros. But he was a 17-year-old wild card the first time, in 2015. Last year, he stretched Fognini to five sets in a first-round loss. It was the second best-of-five match in Tiafoe's career.

Tiafoe still needs to rein in and sand off some of the rough edges of his game. He needs to sustain his concentration for longer periods. Robby Ginepri, his coach since the fall of 2016, has done good work, most notably in making Tiafoe's explosive serve more consistent, especially in pressure situations. That wandering toss is now more stable.

On Sunday, as Sousa lay on the court immediately after match point, tears already welling in his eyes, Tiafoe walked around the net post to give the winner a hug and words of congratulations. Tiafoe sensed that this one had "fate" written all over it.

"I left a lot of balls short and he took advantage," Tiafoe said. "He took advantage and he put a lot of pressure on me. I wasn't tired; it was mostly the crowd. I never played a match like that before, against a hometown hero. My feet were like stones."

A moment later, Tiafoe reassured his audience that it isn't likely to happen that way too often in the future.

"I hope [Sousa] enjoys this one," Tiafoe added, laughing. "It's not going to happen this way next year."