Frances Tiafoe is the player we need. Right now.
Reaching his first semifinals at the US Open, Frances Tiafoe is the American dream.
Constant Tiafoe and Alfina Kamara came to the United States from civil-war-splintered Sierra Leone in West Africa in the 1990s and met in this country. In January 1998, Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, were born in Maryland.The next year, the dad of two began working as a day laborer on a construction crew building the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park. After the facility was completed, he was hired as the on-site custodian. But with two mouths to feed and no money for day care – and an iffy neighborhood to escape – Constant Tiafoe accepted a place to live inside a vacant office at the tennis center, where he slept with his boys, five days a week, for 11 years.
From age 4, Frances and Franklin played tennis regularly at their makeshift home. From age 5, the boys started training. And now they are all together at the US Open.
The Tiafoe family was there to see Frances in his first-ever Grand Slam Quarter-final pulling off an upset as he defeated 9th-seed Andrey Rublev. The first win gave him more confidence in himself and his relationship with the crowd. He had won them over completely.
“I felt so at home. This court is unbelievable. You guys get so far behind me,” Frances told the spectators in Arthur Ashe Stadium. “I want to play my best. I always find a way on this court.”
This is the type of athlete we need. When I saw Nick Kyrgios have his tantrum on court, all I could think about was how athletes never talk about being role models anymore. The younger athletes in the sport watch your antics and emulate. There have always been “spoiled” players. There was a time when John McEnroe acted the same way. Now he’s one of the lead broadcasters of the US Open.
Frances Tiafoe is the first Black American man to reach the US Open Tennis Championships semifinals since Arthur Ashe in 1972.
I had the honor of photographing Arthur Ashe with New York City Mayor David Dinkins at the first Arthur Ashe AIDS Tennis Challenge benefit on August 30, 1992, in the stadium of the National Tennis Center. Dinkins proclaimed it “Arthur Ashe Day” in New York City. Born in Richmond, Virginia, Ashe began playing tennis at age 7 on courts at Brookfield Park, a segregated playground adjacent to his home. In 1988, he helped develop inner-city tennis programs and co-founded the National Junior Tennis League in New York City, Newark, Detroit, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Indianapolis.
In August just prior to the US Open, Frances Tiafoe participated in the Citi Open HBCU (Historically Black College or University) clinic at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC.
“Competing at the Citi Open and joining Citi and the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation (WTEF) to empower Black youth directly is an honor and a privilege,” Tiafoe said. “It’s nice to take a break from competing and share some of my own personal anecdotes and life lessons with aspiring HBCU students. Representation in tennis is imperative, and I’m honored to be a homegrown figure to showcase what is capable within the sport while also providing exposure to HBCU tennis programs across the US.”
This is the type of athlete we need today. In a time when so much money is thrown at the athletes at the top of the sport, they must still remember that it is not just the money. Thousands of little kids are looking up to you as you battle to reach the top of the pyramid. I recently saw a video where the coach basically said, “If your dad told you it’s not about winning, then he’s a loser.”
Francis Tiafoe’s father, Constant, was asked by Pam Shriver if his son could win the last two matches and win the championship.
“It’s just like a dream come true,” his father Constant Tiafoe told ESPN’s Pam Shriver. “He’s really really playing well. I’m like stunned. I don’t even know what to say at this point. If we can go to the end, I will be very very happy but right now it’s huge.”
Frances was heavily influenced by Venus and Serena Williams.
“At that time watching Serena and Venus play finals of Grand Slams, when I was super young, I was like, how cool would it be to play Wimbledon, to play on Arthur Ashe and stuff like that,” he said after beating Nadal.
“At the end of the day I love that because of Frances Tiafoe, there are a lot of people of color playing tennis,” he said.
This sounds like a superstar following in the tracks of the man whose name graces the stadium, where Frances Tiafoe is becoming the new American tennis superstar. It looks like he will use his gifts far beyond the tennis courts. I would like my kid to have his picture on heir wall. This is how a role model works.