Why you should care
Because the U.S. has gone without a major men’s tennis star for far too long.
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When Frances Tiafoe first picked up a tennis racket at age 3, what he held in his tiny hand quickly came to represent more than a game. It was his ticket to the future. “I’ve always believed it,” Tiafoe responds when asked when he knew he had the talent to turn professional. “Tennis was a way out for me and my family. A way for me to do something great.”
He just didn’t realize his chance would come so fast.
“I was even a little surprised at how well my [pro] career started,” says Tiafoe, who followed a record-setting amateur career with an early Grand Slam appearance and an Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Challenger Tour title in 2015. “But I’m far from where I want to be.”
Tiafoe turned professional in April 2015, signing with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports as the agency’s first tennis client.
One week removed from the biggest victory of his young career — a win over No. 6 Alexander Zverev — Tiafoe faces his biggest test yet: Roger Federer. The 19-year-old drew No. 3 Federer, who’s gunning to extend his record (19) for most major titles by a men’s player ever and is playing his best tennis in recent years, in the first round of the U.S. Open. An upset would be life-changing, but even a strong showing could catapult Tiafoe to mainstream relevancy.
Currently ranked No. 70, Tiafoe is the only American teenager in the ATP top 100 and the most promising prospect in a nation that has been without a men’s star to rally behind for the better part of two decades. Not since Andy Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open has an American won a men’s major championship, and he managed only one. Tiafoe is far from ready to follow in those footsteps, but he delivers the promise that American fans have long craved. But first, says tennis Hall of Famer and ESPN broadcaster John McEnroe, the kid’s got some learning to do.
“I think [Tiafoe] will eventually be a top 10 player,” McEnroe tells OZY. “But he needs to add more to his game, which is natural for a young kid, to develop into someone who can contend and win a major.”
When Alphina Tiafoe gave birth to twin boys, Frances Jr. and Franklin, in 1998, tennis didn’t factor into her family’s plans. After emigrating from Sierra Leone, Alphina and Frances Sr. settled in College Park, Maryland, where he worked in construction and then as a custodian at the Junior Tennis Champions Center. Almost instantly, the Tiafoe twins became fixtures at the center, watching older players’ private lessons and mimicking the strokes against a wall. Sometimes, when both parents worked night shifts, the twins would even sleep at the center, using a massage table in their father’s office. “We grew up at that academy,” says Franklin, who now plays at Salisbury University. “We were always the youngest of the bunch. The two little kids who would get picked on by everyone, pretty much.”
Life at the JTCC paid dividends for the Tiafoes. In 2013, at age 15, Frances became the youngest player ever to win the Orange Bowl, tennis’ most celebrated 18-and-under international tournament. By 2015, when he added a U18 National Championship, he’d become the sport’s top junior prospect. While still an amateur, he won his first professional title at the Bakersfield Futures Tournament and realized that he was ready for more. Tiafoe turned professional in April 2015, signing with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports as the agency’s first tennis client. “That was a dream come true,” says Tiafoe, who left Roc Nation for CAA Sports in 2016 to work with a more tennis-savvy group. “[Jay-Z] was great, but they didn’t know what to do with me. It sucks that it didn’t work out, but it’s all good.”
Tiafoe’s been on a steady climb ever since. After finishing 2015 ranked No. 176 in the world, he peaked at No. 60 last month before landing in his current No. 70 spot. His first top-50 win at Wimbledon in July and the defeat of Zverev at this month’s Cincinnati Masters followed. But, with little downtime and constant travel, the life of a teenage athlete serves up challenges beyond the court. “[Being alone on tour] gets tough,” says Tiafoe. “But I have some key people who keep me motivated and remind me why I started this.”
Tiafoe credits Franklin and their good friend Jordi Arconada, a Texas A&M tennis player, with keeping him energized. Arconada traveled with Tiafoe throughout the summer, and Franklin joined them for three weeks in August. “I keep my circle pretty tight,” Tiafoe tells OZY.
More than any other major sport, tennis specializes in individual drama. When a 17-year-old Rafael Nadal upset then top-ranked Roger Federer in 2004, no one could’ve known it marked the beginning of the greatest rivalry in tennis history since Borg-McEnroe. But tennis nurtures those rivalries. Already ordained “the future of tennis” by fans and media, Zverev is probably honing in on targets higher up the rankings than Tiafoe. But the American believes an imminent series of showdowns between the friends, who first met on the youth circuit in 2008, will change that. “We’re going to play at least another 30 or 40 times in the future,” Tiafoe says, eagerly anticipating being ranked alongside Zverev. “I hope this becomes one of the best rivalries in tennis.”
The hyper-individual focus of tennis also makes it nearly impossible to hide deficiencies. At 6-foot-1, Tiafoe will never boast one of the most intimidating serves on tour, but, says McEnroe, his impressive athleticism and continued maturation bodes well for where his game is headed. “The ball is hit so much faster,” the American legend tells OZY. “You have to be much more athletic [than in the past]. Tiafoe seems to be learning quite nicely.”
In an alternate universe, Tiafoe might be with Franklin at Salisbury, choosing classes and prepping for the fall semester. But tonight the next phase of Frances Tiafoe’s schooling will take place under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium. And what better teacher could he ask for than King Roger?