Frances Tiafoe: From sleeping in a tennis center to the semi-finals of the US Open



CNN

After stunning 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal to reach the quarterfinals of the US Open on Monday, Frances Tiafoe threw her racket to the ground and covered her face in shock.

It was a fundamental moment in the career of the young American of 24 years; a culmination of hard work and raw talent that has long been heralded as the potential future of men’s tennis in the country.

Now, with Tiafoe reaching the semifinals by beating Andrey Rublev in straight sets 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 on Wednesday, he has achieved the best Grand Slam result of his career, the achievement all the more impressive given the its humble beginnings.

The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd reveled in the play of Tiafoe, the first black American to reach a U.S. Open semifinal since Ashe in 1972. And in a match where no lost no service games against world no. 11, could not let them down.

“I feel very comfortable on courts like this. This court is amazing. You guys are so far behind, you know I want to play and I want to give my best. I always find a way somehow on this court. I always try to play a great tennis and I have been,” he said in an on-court interview right after the match.

“We enjoy this one. We have two more boys. We have two more.”

Tiafoe’s route to tennis has been by no means traditional.

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

His father, Constant Tiafoe, started working at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Washington, DC in 1999 and eventually moved into one of their empty warehouses while working around the clock.

His two sons sometimes stayed with him, sleeping on a massage table, while their mother worked the night shift as a nurse.

The unusual entry into the sport gave Tiafoe the opportunity to start developing his skills and after he started training at the facility, he didn’t look back.

“Obviously I wasn’t the rich kid or I didn’t have all the new stuff or whatever. But I was just living life. I could play tennis for free, the sport I loved,” he told CNN Sport in 2015 , adding that she wouldn’t change her education for the world.

He was asked Wednesday what message people should take away from his story.

“I mean anyone can do it, honestly. Obviously this is a cliché, but I think if you’re really passionate about something… Everyone has a gift,” he said, adding that his passion and obsession it’s tennis

Tiafoe and his twin brother Franklin played in a fundraising tournament in 2014.

Driven by his parents’ work ethic, he won the prestigious Orange Bowl, one of tennis’ most prized junior tournaments, at age 15, becoming the youngest men’s singles champion in the tournament’s history.

He joined a list of previous champions that included Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

It was a sign of things to come.

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

He broke into the world top 100 and began to assert himself at the Grand Slams, reaching his first quarter-final at the Australian Open in 2019 before losing to Nadal.

Three years later and on Wednesday he found himself in another quarter-final as world No.1. 26, only this time he felt more ready to seize 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 beating Nadal. “I have been able to develop and I have a great team around me.

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

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

While establishing himself as a contender on the court, Tiafoe also seeks social justice off it.

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

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

In collaboration with a number of black players and coaches, including Serena Williams and Coco Gauff, she posted the “Rackets Down, Hands Up” video on her social media channels.

“Do we help everyone? Of course not, but I will certainly help as many people as I can. That’s my duty,” he told CNN Sport at the time.

On Wednesday, his coach, Wayne Ferreira, said Tiafoe’s story is movie material, but he needs to win the US Open or another Grand Slam event first.

“You only get movies if you do well,” he said. “But his story is very unique and it’s a fantastic story. And he is very humble. He is a very, very, very nice person. Very big hearted and kind. You have to love it. It’s really special.”

Make no mistake, though, this is not an overnight success story. It is the product of thousands of hours of work and a mentality that does not take no for an answer.

However, while the weight of a nation rests on his shoulders, Tiafoe has always focused on making his parents proud.

“With them trying 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 go.”

Tiafoe will now play Carlos Alcaraz for a place in the final after the Spaniard faced a marathon match against Jannik Sinner, with the match ending shortly before 3am local time.

With Alcaraz expending so much energy, it’s a golden opportunity for the American to continue his career and will no doubt have the support of the home crowd.

“Those things excite me, for sure. Seeing people calling your name, just loving what you’re doing. That’s amazing. That’s what it’s all about,” Tiafoe told reporters after the game.

“You know, everyone loves a Cinderella story. [I’m] I’m just trying to make one.”

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