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.
Frances Tiafoe is the No. The No. 22 seed will take on Frances Tiafoe. 3 seed Carlos Alcaraz, from Spain, in one of Friday’s semifinals, will aim to change all that. American is the tournament’s feel-good story. Tiafoe is the son of Sierra Leonean immigrants. He grew up in Washington D.C. and slept at times in the tennis court that his father built. 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 years old) defeated Nadal in Monday’s fourth round, 6-4. He proved the upset wasn’t a fluke on Wednesday. Tiafoe defeated Number. Andrey Rublev (Russia), 7-6 (3) and 7-6(0) in the quarters to be the first American male to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since Roddick (2006)
Roddick had just turned 21 back in ’03. He beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets. America’s tennis future looked bright.
A trio of legends was 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 is the proud owner of his 22. It has been a long time since an American male ruled at a major. For some perspective … Roddick’s victory took place about six months before Coco Gauff was born. Jeepers Creepers 2.It topped the box offices. 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.
Growing Up Tennis
Tiafoe had knocked Nadal out, and he couldn’t contain his emotions. He held back his tears and hid his face. “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 first met in Washington D.C. Constant Tiafoe worked as a day labourer and Alphina was an RN. Frances was born to Franklin and Frances in 1998.
Constant was hired to work on the construction of the Junior Tennis Champions Center. The facility’s custodian was hired for Constant. Frances and Franklin slept in the storage area at the tennis centre when Alphina was working night shifts.
“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.”
Tiafoe fell in love with tennis because he spent so much time near the centre. Tiafoe saw tennis as an opportunity to improve his life and earn college scholarships. At 15, he was the youngest junior to win the Orange Bowl International singles event. He turned pro at 17, in 2015, becoming the first tennis player to sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports agency. He has moved to other agencies since then.
At the Australian Open 2019, his first Grand Slam quarterfinal was reached. He lost in straight sets to Nadal. Tiafoe said he wasn’t mature enough to handle raised expectations during that time. However, Tiafoe was free from the pressure of the majors. He fine-tuned the game to where he can win a championship.
He defeated Nadal personally in front of his family 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.”
For justice, call
Tiafoe tried to extend his reach beyond the court. In an Instagram video, Tiafoe posted a picture with Ayan Bloomfield (2019 NCAA doubles champion), following the assassination of George Floyd. This was to raise awareness of the injustices that Black Americans are dying. “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.”
The ATP awarded Tiafoe its Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award in 2020. “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 manSince Ashe reached the semi-finals in 1972,
You can have your wish granted
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.
It was a very fulfilling wish. Alcaraz and Sinner fought a five hour marathon that lasted 15 minutes into Thursday morning. Alcaraz won 6-3, 6/7 (7), 6-6 (0), 7-5 and 6-3. This match was instantly called a classic by pundits. It ended at 2:50 AM, breaking the U.S. Open record for fastest finish time. Alcaraz (aged 19) and Sinner (21) gave us a preview of what’s to come in the post-Big 3 age. With the top two seeds out of the tournament, Alcaraz, who’s earned comparisons to Nadal, seems poised to take his first major.
Tiafoe is not likely to be rolled over. “American tennis is in a great place,” he says. He’ll get his chance to prove it on Friday.
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