Meet Frances Tiafoe. He Might Just Save American Men's Tennis
Frances Tiafoe of the United States celebrates a point against Andrey Rublev during their Men’s Singles Quarterfinal match on Day Ten of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 07, 2022 in New York City. Credit - Matthew Stockman—Getty Images
The success of Serena Williams—and her tennis swan song at this year’s U.S. Open—has long cast a harsh light on the flip side of the American tennis story: a sustained, if not inexplicable, victory draught for the men. No American has won a Grand Slam tournament since Andy Roddick did so … nearly two decades ago, in 2003.
But Frances Tiafoe, the No. 22 seed who will face No. 3 seed Carlos Alcaraz, from Spain, in one of Friday’s semifinals, will aim to change all that. The American has emerged as the feel-good tale of the tournament. The son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, Tiafoe grew up near Washington D.C., sometimes sleeping at the tennis facility that his father helped build. He’s already felled Rafael Nadal’s attempt to win a 23rd major championship, which would have tied him with Williams for the most major wins ever in the Open Era.
Tiafoe, 22, downed Nadal in the fourth round on Monday, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. On Wednesday, he proved that upset was far from some fluke. Tiafoe beat No. 9 Andrey Rublev, of Russia, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0), 6-4 in the quarters, to become the first American man to reach a U.S. Open semifinal since Roddick in 2006.
Roddick had just turned 21 back in ’03. He beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets. America’s tennis future looked bright.
But then a trio of legends were born. Roger Federer had won the 2003 Wimbledon: he earned 19 more Grand Slam titles after Roddick’s 2003 victory. Novak Djokovic won 21 majors. Nadal has his 22. How long has it been since an American man reigned at a major? For some perspective … Roddick’s victory took place about six months before Coco Gauff was born. Jeepers Creepers 2 topped the box office. A few months after Roddicks’s 2003 win, the Guardian published an article about “online radio,” entitled “Audible revolution.”
“What to call it?” wrote journalist and technologist Ben Hammersley. “Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?”
For U.S. tennis fans, it’s clearly time for a new men’s champion. Tiafoe, who’s eminently likeable and exciting, represents new hope.
He’d make for a great audioblog.
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Growing Up Tennis
After Tiafoe knocked off Nadal, he could barely control his emotions. He ducked his head, holding back tears. “I really don’t know what happened,” he said after that match. “It was definitely one hell of a performance.”
He’s a natural crowd-pleaser, with a compelling backstory to boot. His parents, Constant Tiafoe and Alphina Kamara Tiafoe, fled Sierra Leone’s civil war in the mid-1990s. They met in suburban Washington D.C. Constant Tiafoe was a day laborer, and Alphina was a nurse. Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, were born in 1998.
Constant got a construction gig for the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland. He was then hired as the custodian for the facility. As Alphina worked night shifts, Frances and Franklin often would sleep in the storage room at the tennis center when their dad worked extra hours.
“It was a pretty small room,” Tiafoe told Andscape back in 2019. “There were two massage tables in there, and my father slept on one and me and my brother were small enough to share the other. My mom’s apartment was maybe three minutes away, and we’d stay there on weekends and other days when she was off.”
Spending so much time around the tennis center turned Tiafoe onto the game. He saw the sport as a way to earn a college scholarship and improve his lot. But at 15, he became the youngest boy to win singles at the Orange Bowl International, the prestigious event for juniors. He turned pro at 17, in 2015, becoming the first tennis player to sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports agency. (He has since moved on to different agencies).
He reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal in 2019, at the Australian Open, when he lost to Nadal in straight sets. Tiafoe said he wasn’t mature enough to handle raised expectations during that time. But away from the glare of the majors, he fine-tuned his game, to the point where a championship is within his grasp.
His parents watched him defeat Nadal in person on Monday. “To see them experience me beat Rafa Nadal, they’ve seen me have big wins, but to beat those ‘Mount Rushmore’ guys, for them, I can’t imagine what was going through their heads,” said Tiafoe. “Yeah, I mean, they’re going to remember today for the rest of their lives.”
Call for Justice
Tiafoe has tried to wield his influence beyond the tennis court. Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, he posted an Instagram video with his girlfriend, 2019 NCAA doubles champion Ayan Bloomfield, raising awareness about the unjust deaths of Black Americans. “Today, we put our racquets down,” Tiafoe said, “and our hands up.” To the song “Glory,” by Common and John Legend, a host of Black tennis figures—including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, James Blake, Sloane Stephens, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gauff, raised their hands at a camera.
“I think the impact is staggering,” Blake told Tennis.com. “To see that many Black and brown faces in a sport that has traditionally been considered a white, country-club sport is surprising for a lot of casual fans. It’s also impressive that Frances was able to get in touch with all of those players and coaches. I think it shows the solidarity of a small group of athletes that want change.”
In 2020, the ATP named Tiafoe the winner of its Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award. “My dad was a janitor at a tennis facility in Maryland, and I was lucky to be around the sport from a young age, even if I did not have the money or opportunities a lot of other kids did,” he wrote in a letter addressed to Ashe. “None of that stopped me from dreaming big. I pushed myself to the limit every day with a big smile on my face.”
He’s the first Black American man to reach the semifinals since Ashe in 1972.
After he defeated Rublev in Wednesday’s quarterfinal, Tiafoe made a request for the Alcaraz-Jannik Sinner match that followed his. “I just hope they play a marathon match, super-long match, and they get really tired come Friday,” Tiafoe said with a smile.
This wish came very true. Alcaraz and Sinner played a 5 hour, 15 minute marathon into Thursday morning. Alcaraz prevailed 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-7 (0), 7-5, 6-3 in a match pundits instantly labelled a classic: it ended at 2:50 a.m., breaking the record for the latest finishing time in U.S. Open history. Alcaraz, 19, and Sinner, 21, offered a taste of what could be in store in the post-Big 3 era. With the top two seeds out of the tournament, Alcaraz, who’s earned comparisons to Nadal, seems poised to take his first major.
Tiafoe, however, is unlikely to roll over for anyone. “American tennis is in a great place,” he says. He’ll get his chance to prove it on Friday.