A version of this article first appeared in the October/November 2022 issue of Australian Tennis Magazine, one of the world’s longest-running tennis publications. For more in-depth features, news and analysis, you can subscribe now.
It’s a story, said a beaming Frances Tiafoe, that he will one day tell his grandkids. With just a lone Grand Slam quarterfinal on his record, he took to the court against Rafael Nadal at Arthur Ashe Stadium and stunned the 22-time major champion in four hard-fought sets.
“It was definitely one hell of a performance,” said Tiafoe of the US Open fourth-round triumph, which was his first in three career meetings with the world No.3. “I mean, I just came out there and I just believed I could do it. It helps (that) I’d played him a couple times. Haven't played him in some years. I'm a different person now, different player. I went out there trying to get a ‘w’, and that's what I did.”
The story of America’s No.2 male player, of course, neither started, nor finishes, there. Tiafoe’s introduction to the sport – in a Maryland tennis centre where his father worked as the head of maintenance – is already woven into tennis folklore. That his parents, Frances Senior and Alphina, had fled civil war in their native Sierra Leone to create a new life in America adds a powerful significance to the narrative.
Far from tired of retelling the well-documented tale, a proud Tiafoe instead emphasised how tennis became his path to a brighter future. “Us being around tennis was kind of us getting out of our neighbourhood,” said Tiafoe, who often slept overnight at the tennis centre with twin brother Franklin while their mother juggled two jobs as a nurse.
“My dad kind of being able to watch us. It wasn't anything supposed to be like this. Once we got in the game of tennis, my dad was like, ‘it would be awesome if you guys can use this as a full scholarship to school’. I mean, we couldn't afford a university, so use the game of tennis.”
With some inspirational role models fuelling his passion, a young Frances set his sights on even bigger things. “Watching Serena and Venus (Williams) play finals of Grand Slams at that time, when I was super young, I was like, ‘how cool would it be to play Wimbledon, to play on Arthur Ashe (Stadium) and stuff like that?’,” he recalled.
Brandishing an instinctive attacking style, lighting fast speed, dazzling shot-making ability and a tendency towards lion-hearted celebrations, Tiafoe quickly showed he was destined for those big stages. He claimed a first ATP title at Delray Beach as a 20-year-old and made his first big move at Grand Slam level as he upset Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov, ranked No.6 and No.21 at the time, to reach the Australian Open 2019 quarterfinals.
For a period, however, it seemed Tiafoe would become better known for electrifying flashes of brilliance than sustained dominance at the top of the game. But after adding former world No.6 Wayne Ferreira to his coaching team early in 2020, a more disciplined Tiafoe achieved a new level of professionalism. “My fitness is solid right now. I’ve slimmed out a lot. Really put the time in with that,” said Tiafoe, noting how those physical gains are backed by mental ones.
“I’ve been known to have some dips in my games at time. That was my thing, match intensity. Even when I got broken in the fourth (set against Nadal), got pissed or whatever, I was able to stay with him, stay in it … it was big.”
So too was Tiafoe’s growing sense of belonging. Grouped for many years among numerous rising Americans – including Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul and Reilly Opelka – Tiafoe was also considered one of many next-gen players who could make major inroads on the ATP Tour.
And while he was happy to “be the dark horse who could do something special” early at the US Open, Tiafoe quickly showed that he was not only comfortable in the spotlight, but clearly felt he belongs there. “I’m here to talk about me being in the fourth round, I’m not here to talk about Nick Kyrgios,” the American pointedly noted when media diverted their attention during one press conference.
The growing self-belief contributed to some huge performances at Flushing Meadows. Tiafoe backed up his win over Nadal with victory over ninth seed Andrey Rublev before a five-set loss to Carlos Alcaraz in an epic semifinal. “(It was) the craziest two weeks of my life,” he reflected. “Stuff you dream about doing.”
The transformation continued in Tiafoe’s next tournament, with the American emerging as the hero for Team World at Laver Cup. He saved four match points (and added to his perfect record of eight tiebreak wins at the US Open, with two in London) to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the high-pressure final match. “Looks like I’ve got that clutch gene right now,” smiled Tiafoe, who was dubbed “Prime Time Foe” by team-mates.
Many proud supporters, including girlfriend Ayan Broomfield, a Canadian tennis player, are delighted to watch his rise. Fans at Flushing Meadows included former First Lady Michelle Obama and basketball star Bradley Beal, with Tiafoe’s long-time hero LeBron James sending congratulations via social media.
“Seeing people like screaming your name, just loving what you're doing. That's awesome. That's what it's all about,” said the humbled American. “You know, everyone loves a Cinderella story. Just trying to make one.”
As his fan base rapidly expanded, Tiafoe was most excited for his parents, who had sparked their son’s dream. “I just had a big passion for the game. Not even mainly for me, but to do it for them,” Tiafoe said. “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 … I mean, they're going to remember today for the rest of their lives.”
There are more memories destined to be made as Tiafoe builds on his heartening rise. “Every time I win, I just want to inspire a bunch of people to just know that you can – I mean, anything is possible. For me do this and talk about how I feel about being in the US Open from my come-up is crazy,” he reasoned.
“At the end of the day, I love that because of Frances Tiafoe there is a lot of people of colour playing tennis. That's obviously a goal for me. That's why I'm out here trying pretty hard.”