Frances Tiafoe: From sleeping in a tennis center to the US Open semifinals



CNN

After stunning 22-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal to reach the US Open quarterfinals on Monday, Frances Tiafoe threw her racket to the floor and covered her face in amazement.

The 24-year-old just stood there soaking up the atmosphere created by a raucous Arthur Ashe Stadium.

It felt like a pivotal moment in the American race; a culmination of hard work and raw talent that has long been heralded as the potential future of men’s tennis in the country.

Expectations have long been high on Tiafoe and the world No. 26 already looks more comfortable on the sport’s biggest stage.

And as Tiafoe reached the semifinals by beating Andrey Rublev in straight sets on Wednesday, he recorded the best grand slam result of his career – a feat made all the more impressive by his humble beginnings.

Tiafoe’s route to tennis, after all, was not traditional.

Her parents met in the US after leaving Sierra Leone and had twins together, Franklin and Frances.

Their father, Constant Tiafoe, began working at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Washington, DC in 1999 and eventually moved into one of its vacant storage rooms while working around the clock.

Her two sons sometimes stay with her, sleeping on a massage table, while their mother works night shifts as a nurse.

The unusual gateway to the sport gave Tiafoe the opportunity to begin developing his skills and, after starting training at the facility, he never looked back.

“Obviously, I’m not the rich kid or not having all the new things or whatever. But I just lived. I could play tennis for free, the sport I loved,” he told CNN Sport in 2015, adding that he wouldn’t change his upbringing for the world.

Thanks to his parents’ work ethic, he won the prestigious Orange Bowl – one of tennis’ most important junior tournaments – at age 15, becoming the youngest boys’ singles champion in the tournament’s history.

He joins a list of past champions that includes Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

This is a sign of things to come.

Tiafoe turned professional in 2015 and began to familiarize himself with the rigors of the senior tour.

He broke into the world’s top 100 and began to assert himself at the grand slam – reaching his first quarterfinal at the Australian Open in 2019 before losing to Nadal.

It’s been three years and he found himself on Wednesday in another quarterfinal, but this time he felt more prepared to accept the opportunity.

“Honestly, when I first came on the scene, I wasn’t ready for it mentally and mature enough,” he said on court after defeating Nadal. “I have been able to develop and I have a good team around me.

“I’m happy that I won in front of my mom, my dad, my girlfriend and my team and they can see what I did.”

Tiafoe reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 2019 but was defeated by Nadal.

As he establishes himself as an opponent on the court, Tiafoe also pursues social justice off it.

In 2022, he told CNN Sport that the lack of diversity in the sport made him feel like an “outsider,” and vowed to continue fighting for equality while he still had the platform to do so.

He made a protest video in 2022 to raise awareness of racial injustices after the death of George Floyd sparked protests around the world.

In collaboration with a host of Black players and coaches – such as Serena Williams and Coco Gauff – she posted a “Racquets down, hands up” video on her social media channels.

“Are we going to help everyone? Of course not, but I will definitely help as many people as I can. That’s my role,” he told CNN Sport at the time.

On court, his match with Rublev was certainly the biggest of his career to date.

The home crowd cheered its hero with hopes that he would reach new heights in his quest to win the maiden grand slam title. And in a match where he didn’t lose a service game, he didn’t let them down.

After taking down Rublev, the world No. 11, Tiafoe told the crowd, “I have a lot of fun on courts like this. This court is incredible. You guys are far from me, you know I want to play and I want to give my best. I always find a way somehow in this court. I always try to play good tennis and I have been. Let’s enjoy this one. We have two other boys. We still have two.”

His performances even caught the attention of some of the biggest names in the sport, with NBA star LeBron James congratulating Tiafoe on making it to the quarterfinals.

“Thank you brother. We still have a lot to do,” Tiafoe responded Twitter.

However, make no mistake, this is not an overnight success story. It’s a product of thousands of hours of work and a mentality that won’t take no for an answer.

However, with the weight of a nation resting on his shoulders, Tiafoe has always focused solely on raising his parents.

“With them working so hard, I felt like I didn’t want to let them down,” he told CNN Sport in 2015. “I felt like I didn’t want to let opportunities down.”