Interview Frances Tiafoe: ‘I want to use my story to inspire others, you can’t make it up’ Donald McRae Frances Tiafoe used to sleep at the tennis centre where his father was janitor. Now the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone is taking on the great names in the sport
“It’s a movie, man, an absolute movie. I say it all the time,” Frances Tiafoe exclaims of his incredible life story. Born into a family of west African immigrants, Tiafoe escaped the disadvantages of his early years in America to become one of the most exhilarating young players in world tennis. Four months ago, at the Australian Open, the 21-year-old came through a series of brutal matches to reach his first grand slam quarter-final. After each victory, Tiafoe screamed and tore off his shirt as if to show us how he had transformed his life.
“A couple of times I was bursting out in tears because I was like, ‘Damn, I’m doing it’,” Tiafoe says as he remembers beating higher-ranked and more experienced players before running into Rafael Nadal. In the sunshine of Estoril, not far from Lisbon, Tiafoe shakes his head in wonder at his journey from Maryland to Melbourne.
“Wow,” he says, in a dreamy drawl, as if talking to himself, “everything you talked about, everything you went through, brought you to the quarter-finals of a grand slam. Biggest cheque you ever made. LeBron James is talking about you. Everyone’s so worried about making a living but you did it. It felt beautiful.”
As children, Tiafoe and his twin brother Franklin had slept on the floor and on narrow folding tables in an office at a tennis centre in Maryland, a short drive from Washington DC, where they grew up with their father. The little boy taught himself to play tennis by watching the privileged kids whose parents could afford to pay for their expensive tuition at the Junior TennisChampions Centre. He used discarded rackets and, even if their size and weight did not suit him, Tiafoe found a way to hit the ball against a wall.
Tiafoe’s father, Frances Sr, had worked in the diamond mines of his native Sierra Leone. He had escaped a country torn apart by civil war and found his way to America. His wife, Alphina, struck it lucky when, in 1996, she entered the green card lottery, which randomly allocates a restricted number of American visas to people from countries with low immigration rates to the US. Millions applied and the odds against her had been monumental.
When Frances Sr and Alphina became parents to twins he found work on a construction crew which built the tennis centre that eventually became home. Frances Sr worked so hard the impressed owners offered him a permanent role as the janitor. He and Alphina felt it would be a better environment for the boys if they spent five nights of the week at the centre. The JTCC gave permission for Frances to convert a small spare office, with one small window, into a home for him and the twins. The boys spent the other two nights every week with their mother and her relatives in a one-bedroom apartment in Hyattsville.
“Sleeping on folding tables in the office,” Tiafoe says, “was where my adventure started. I was thinking, ‘How’s this story going to end?’ I saw tennis as the way to get me somewhere else. It was me thinking: ‘Can you imagine if we do this right? It would be incredible. You can’t make it up.’ I want to use the story now to inspire others. You don’t have to be from the upper echelon to be great. If you want something in life, go get it.”
When he lay in the dark, with these thoughts churning through him, he must have been strong to dream so big. “I was always thinking, ‘There’s got to be something more than this.’” Tiafoe says, half-smiling at a bittersweet memory.
Did he feel anger when he saw everything the rich kids had at the centre? “I wouldn’t say anger because you knew to be grateful for what you have. But it was tough because they’d look at what you wore and it was not great. My dad played a special role. He said: ‘Look, you could have the last laugh. You’ve got an amazing opportunity. They’ve got chauffeurs. That’s cool but is it theirs? No, they were born into it. You can earn yours.’”
Tiafoe nods intently. “It made sense. I was born into a poor family but my family’s good. I’m good and I’m going to do something great.”
Misha Kouznetsov arrived at the centre as a coach when Tiafoe was eight. He admired the little boy and, apart from giving him free coaching, Kouznetsov paid the entry fees to his first tournaments. Tiafoe also became a student of the game as he watched the Tennis Channel incessantly. “I was glued,” Tiafoe says, “because you learned so much. That’s why my tennis IQ is pretty high.”
Tiafoe’s court intelligence, allied to his blistering speed and the physicality of a champion boxer, compensates for the quirks in his technique that resulted from him not always playing with the right equipment. “I didn’t have a racket so I picked up whatever was hanging around. It was not until I got sponsored at 12 that I finally owned a racket.”
Instead of being driven by pushy tennis parents, Tiafoe’s desire came from within. “My parents wanted me and my brother to get a college scholarship. Get a degree, and they would have been more than happy. I remember this conversation when I was 12. I was confused, because how many people have degrees and no direction? My mother said: ‘That’s the American way.’ I said: ‘No, why don’t I take this opportunity to better your’s and pop’s life, my brother’s life? Let me give everybody a chance by excelling.’
“She said: ‘I’m not arguing with you, I’m telling you.’ But I would not back down. They were shocked. They said: ‘This guy is serious.’ I was like: ‘I’m dead serious. This is going to happen.’ I had a vision and I worked for it every day.”
Having become the youngest player, aged 15, to win the Orange Bowl, the most prestigious title in world tennis for boys under 18, Tiafoe was signed by Jay-Z to his management company, Roc Nation. He is now with a different agency but Tiafoe remains wide-eyed. “When I met Jay-Z and Beyoncé I was in awe, stuttering like crazy. This guy grew up in the projects and he and Beyoncé are a billionaire couple. The empires they’ve built, affecting so many lives, is unbelievable.”
Serena Williams and LeBron James inspired Tiafoe even more profoundly. For Tiafoe, “Serena’s arguably the best athlete of all time, so getting to know her was surreal. She was winning grand slams when I was born [Williams won her first slam, the US Open in 1999, when Tiafoe was one]. We played the Hopman Cup this year and laughed about it. She was like: ‘I need to hang this up.’ But she’s still awesome. I hope she keeps playing a long time. Her story is so much bigger than tennis.”
When ripping off his shirt in Australia, as one win followed another, Tiafoe would emulate James’ famous “Silencer” celebration by beating his biceps and chest. “Next thing I know LeBron put out Silencer, a crown and two muscle emojis,” on a tweet after Tiafoe beat Grigor Dimitrov. “I couldn’t believe he knows who I am. It’s really cool.”
His extraordinary run escalated when, in the second round, he beat Kevin Anderson, the fifth seed and last year’s Wimbledon finalist. “He beat me three times in 2018 and I lost the first set. But I sat down in my chair and thought: ‘I’m not losing this match.’ I went to a different place mentally. I started to move better, play earlier, cut angles off. Before I knew it I was shaking his hand.”
Andreas Seppi, the veteran Italian, tested Tiafoe in a gruelling five-set match. “He has been a hell of a player a long time. I’m down two sets to one but you gotta dig. It’s going to hurt but what’s going to hurt more? A loss, or digging in? Dig deep man, real deep.
“I then had Dimitrov [in the last 16]. It was absolute war. I left everything out there, because I wanted it bad. I wanted Rafa on centre court.”
Tiafoe lost in straight sets to Nadal, just as he did last week in Madrid, and he concedes he needs to take another leap mentally to reach this higher level. “Against Nadal I was so frightened, I’d never been there before. He’s probably played a thousand quarter-finals. I need moments like that to become second nature to me.
“The best quote I ever heard is ‘The moment is never as big as it seems.’ That’s why the mental side is so important. At this level everyone can play great. But can you do it at 5-5, 30-all in the fifth set against Roger Federer at Wimbledon? I know I can. I just need to make grand slam quarter-finals a normal thing.”
The French Open begins later this month. It is a tournament where Tiafoe has struggled but he says: “I’ve won two Challenger tournaments and the Orange Bowl on clay – and I got to the final in Estoril last year. I haven’t won a match at the French but I aim to start this year.”
His aggressive game and athleticism is suited to grass and his relish is obvious when looking ahead to the Fever-Tree Championships at Queen’s Club and then Wimbledon. “I’ve played Queen’s a couple of times and last year I made the quarters. I lost to [Jérémy] Chardy but it was good. It’s a real boutique event with a strong field every year. It sets you up for Wimbledon. I love London and I’ve got my killer dinner spots – sushi, Thai – in Wimbledon Village. Last year [when he beat Fernando Verdasco and reached the third round of Wimbledon] it should’ve been the fourth round as I was two sets up against [Karen] Khachanov. That one hurt bad but I like the grass and I like my chances at Wimbledon.”
He becomes reflective again and remembers how his mother took him and his brother to Sierra Leone for a visit when “we were eight. It was good for us to understand life is different in Africa. It humbles you and it’s good I was raised an African. When I came back to DC after Australia a bunch of little kids were talking about it. I felt I had made a difference. I had inspired some kid to say: ‘I want to be like Frances when I grow up’.”
Tiafoe touches the small crown he wears on his necklace. “I’ve had it since I was 15. A family friend gave it to me after I won the Orange Bowl. He said: ‘Man, that was king stuff. It shows when you put your mind to something you can do anything. It was kingly.’”
Tiafoe laughs when I say I should call him “King” from now on. “No, no,” he says in mock protest. “I’m not there yet.”
Late that afternoon, with Tiafoe bathed in sweat after practice on a sunlit court, I can’t resist. “Hello, King,” I say. Tiafoe grins, bows his head and laughs again, just like at the end of a dream-like movie.