NEW YORK – Frances Tiafoe tells it with a full smile. His thick accent and all the colloquial sayings he uses, makes even a native speaker struggle to fully understand him: ” I felt like the world stopped. I couldn’t hear anything for a minute. Even shaking his hand, I don’t even know what I said to him. It was such a blur. Like, I was already tearing. It was just wild. My heart is going a thousand miles an hour. I’ve never felt something like that in my life, honestly”.
That’s what it’s like to beat Rafael Nadal in the biggest stadium in tennis, in your favourite tournament, in front of your home crowd. 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to snap the Spaniard’s 22-match winning streak at majors this 2022.
Tiafoe, 24, advanced to the U.S. Open quarterfinals for the first time in his career, and has the American crowd buzzing. Not only with his smart, fast-paced tennis, but also with his charisma and friendly attitude, whether he wins or loses matches.
Tears are not a rare thing in the American’s career. In those hard-fought victories, specially against higher-ranked players on the big stages when he has been the underdog, he has not held back his emotions.
“Sometimes I can’t hold back the tears because it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m making it,'” he told The Guardian in 2019 in Australia, when he first excelled in a major tournament. That time, it was a quarter-final defeat to Nadal. Now he’s relishing the rematch.
Frances Tiafoe celebrates at the Australian Open 2019 // Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
Tiafoe celebrated madly every time he won matches in that tournament, tearing up his shirt, slapping his biceps, imitating Lebron James’ typical celebration: “I slept on a folding table shared with my brother in an office… everything I went through got me to the quarters of a Grand Slam. Lebron talks about me. Everybody’s worried about making a living, and I did it. It feels beautiful.”
The African-American tennis player is the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone. Both left the difficult life and impending civil war in the early 1990s to seek their fortunes in Hyattsville, Maryland, in the suburbs of Washington D.C. Constant, his father, worked in the diamond mines in the West African country.
Her mother Alphina worked double shifts as a nurse. She was lucky: in 1996 she entered a lottery to “win” a green card, which the government randomly assigned to immigrants from countries with low rates of entry to the United States. Millions applied and she was one of the beneficiaries.
Constant Tiafoe got a job as a construction worker at the Junior Tennis Champions Center, while their twins Franklin and Frances were born. His good performance earned him a job as the club’s janitor. When the kids turned five, their parents got permission from the tennis centre to take them in during the weekdays. The board then allowed them to convert a spare small office into a room for him and the boys.
In that environment, using any racquets left in the club, Tiafoe began hitting the ball against the wall, having to endure the taunts of the kids who attended the club for wearing old clothes or broken shoes. “The circumstances of my life have definitely changed,” he told Andscape, sitting on the terrace of his flat in one of Washington’s best neighbourhoods: “But those bad jokes when I was a kid really hurt. They made me feel like I wasn’t cut from the same cloth.”
When Tiafoe travelled to Sierra Leone with his mother and brother for the first time at the age of eight, they realised that the life they lived in that tiny makeshift room was actually a luxury compared to the reality in West Africa: “People don’t have electricity, they shower with cold water. Poverty is crazy and I saw how people really suffered”.
With that memory, he then realised that as an American citizen he had infinite possibilities to do whatever he wanted.
“Man, I was losing it in the locker room. Bro, I was going crazy,” he caused laughter in the press room as the tennis player recounted his reaction to the virtual salute from the basketball legend, who congratulated Tiafoe on Twitter. “I saw the post and I was like… I retweet it as soon as he put it up? You know what, I’m going to be cool and act like I didn’t see it and then retweet it three hours later,” he said.
Tiafoe is now one of the most beloved players on the circuit, known in social media world for his charismatic handshakes in the net, especially when he loses. Or his posts on Instagram after his matches, where he congratulates and praises his rivals.
This Wednesday, he faces Russian Andrey Rublev for a place in the semi-finals of the US Open. “I’m gonna have the crowd on my side. It’s going to be wild.”