The Remarkable Rise of Frances Tiafoe

Frances Tiafoe

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The American went from sleeping at the tennis club his father cleaned to the U.S. Open semifinal.

This week, Frances Tiafoe, a dazzling young American with a missile of a forehand, stunned the world.

In the fourth round of the U.S. Open, the 24-year-old ended Rafael Nadal’s 22-game Grand Slam winning streak to advance to the quarterfinals. He then followed up by downing Andrey Rublev to become the youngest American to get this far in the tournament since Andy Roddick in 2006.

His performance has left many casual observers wondering who this homegrown phenom is and where he’s been hiding. But Tiafoe has been on the radar of serious tennis fans for years as a remarkable talent with an origin story fit for a movie adaptation.

From humble beginnings

“I’ve been on a tennis court all my life,” the then-16-year-old prodigy said in a 2014 Washington Post profile — and he meant that quite literally. 

Tiafoe’s parents emigrated from Sierra Leone while the country was embroiled in a civil war, then settled in Maryland. His father became a day laborer, helping to build the Junior Tennis Champions Center, a premium training facility for the country’s most promising young players. When the complex was finished in 1999 (when Frances and his twin brother Franklin were 1 year old), Frances Tiafoe Sr. was hired to serve as its maintenance manager. He moved into a 10-by-14 foot room at the facility, where his sons at times spent nights sleeping on a massage table.

Unlike their father, who knew nothing about the sport when he began working at the training center, the Tiafoe twins were immediately immersed in the game, and by age 5 they were enrolled in free clinics at the club. 

From the jump, Tiafoe was consumed by the sport. He could be spotted on the courts, hitting early each morning and late into the nights, and intently watching older players — soaking in their footwork, the shapes of their serves. His passion for tennis is what first got him noticed by coach Misha Kouznetsov, who began training Tiafoe when he was just 8 years old, the Post reports.

The future of American tennis?

Tiafoe really started turning heads in 2013, when he won the Orange Bowl, widely considered the most prestigious junior international competition. At the time, he was just 15 — younger than Roger Federer or John McEnroe when they won the cup. And on the heels of the retirement of Andy Roddick (another Orange Bowl winner), American fans were hungry for a new star. 

Pundits began to wonder if Tiafoe could be the next big thing. He had all the tools: a high tennis IQ, exceptional power behind his shots, and a mental toughness and ability to “rise to the occasion,” one of his coaches told Sports Illustrated in 2014. But in the years since, Tiafoe hasn’t shot to the top of the world tennis scene like some may have hoped. He’s instead made a much slower ascent, grinding his way into the top 50.

“When I first came on the scene, a lot of people had expectations about how I would do,” Tiafoe said after his recent win against Nadal. “I wasn’t ready for it mentally, I wasn’t mature enough for those moments. These past couple years, when the attention hasn’t been on me, I’ve been able to develop.” 

After his win in the U.S. Open quarterfinals against Andrey Rublev, Tiafoe now seems fully poised to seize the day.