Winning his first ATP title the same week the movie Black Panther continued setting box office records around the world, American Francis Tiafoe looks like a young man ready to play a leading role in the world of tennis, serving aces to familiar faces and preparing for his closeup with a 21st Century swagger that seems primed to steal the scene.
In what reads like a Hollywood script, Tiafoe’s rags-to-riches story is a well-documented journey that saw his parents immigrate from civil war-torn Sierra Leone to the United States, where his father Francis Sr. landed a maintenance job at a tennis center. Francis Sr.’s namesake quickly took to the sport that would change their lives forever.
From using racquets that he picked out of the trash to imitate the pros he saw on the courts his dad maintained to being tabbed as a NextGen player on the pro tour, the 20-year-old Maryland native has arrived on the worldwide stage as the Miami Open gets underway.
Shortly after winning the Delray Beach Open last month, securing his first-ever ATP title, Tiafoe talked about taking his career to the next level. “It’s unbelievable – it’s a dream win, your first title,” he said, shaking his head as he tried to soak in the reality. “Now I got that off my back, so it feels pretty good so early in my career. It’s an amazing feeling and I just hope I can get many more as I go along.”
In a pre-tournament conversation about the Miami Open, Tiafoe, who now trains in Orlando, said Crandon Park has become one of his favorite tour stops following an impressive five-set loss to legend Roger Federer on Stadium Court last year.
The rising star is sentimental about the event leaving the island and moving to Miami Gardens just as he was starting to make memories at one of the tour’s most popular locations.
“I like it on Key Biscayne,” he said, confirming he was definitely playing this year’s tournament.
“I think it’s a great event. Too bad it’s the last year, but I like it.”
Now ranked No. 61 in the world, Tiafoe has a lucrative sponsorship from Nike shoes and sports apparel and a Yonex racquets endorsement deal that lead a growing list of companies looking to identify with player who represents so many different marketing demographics.
His rags-to-riches story and intense style of play are wrapped in a humble personality that has tennis fans flocking to see him play.
While working at The Court Sports Gear on Key Biscayne, Juan Pedro Umbert said Tiafoe sometimes wears Nike shirts they sell in the Village. He was quick to point out he believes the young American’s star is on the rise; “I saw him play here,” Umbert said, referencing Tiafoe’s appearance at the Miami Open last year. “He looks like a really strong dude; he’s really got a lot of talent. It definitely looks like he has the heart and definitely the physical strength and ability to step up in the ranks. Now he’s improving in ranks and I’m sure he’ll continue to do so.”
Faith Hilton, a longtime tennis fan from Miami, said she just recently learned about Tiafoe and quickly became a fan of his story.
“I didn’t know much about him, but I learned about his family and how he learned tennis and how he’s come so far, so fast,” Hilton said, adding she is a big ATP fan. “I definitely am looking forward to watching him play in the future and keeping a closer eye on his game. It would be great to see an American man back up atop the rankings again one of these days.”
The unlikely stardom of the first generation American born into humble circumstances is worthy of recounting again and again.
While looking for work in his new homeland, Tiafoe’s father joined a work crew hired to help build what is now the JTCC in College Park, Maryland, and later became the onsite custodian and maintenance manager. He was allowed to live in the spare office space, where he housed his wife and two sons on-and-off for 11 years.
Frances Sr., his wife Alphina and twin boys Francis and Franklin made the most of their College Park environment, embracing every positive element it had to offer.
At age 4, little Francis started to take advantage of the unusual living arrangement, observing his environment, playing tennis on his own and eventually capturing the eye of club pro, Misha Kouzentsov, who began coaching him and even paying for entrance fees to tournaments as he progressed over the years. Looking back at the trilogy of good fortune, faith and hard work, Francis Sr., who is a steady sight by his son’s side at tournaments around the world these days, is proud to talk about the journey they have traveled together.
“I had an opportunity to work in the tennis center, and while I was working there, they were there, they pay nothing for everything that was happening,” he said, explaining how he taught his children to appreciate the moment and seize opportunity.
Francis’ twin brother Franklin is a thriving college tennis player at Salisbury University in Maryland. Bother boys got the same lessons from their father.
“I always told them, ‘They gave your dad an opportunity to work at the academy,’” the family patriarch said. “’You don’t have to pay for anything because I’m working here, so if you have a straight vision you can see, you can go for it and it’s going to happen. You don’t have to be a professional tennis player – something is going to come out good.’ I told them since they were little, “Work hard and you can achieve your goal.’ I told him, ‘Whatever you put your mind to, you can do it.'"
Equally intent on teaching his kids to be good people, Francis Sr. is convinced his boys can handle the pressure and adulation that comes with being in the limelight. He said he has stressed humility and focus with Francis since he saw he had the potential to be a pro.
“I told him a long time ago when he started getting big, you’re not like a normal 18-year-old,” Francis Sr. said, explaining how he taught Junior he must hold himself to a higher standard.
“How many 18-year-olds go out there signing autographs like that? You got to be special, but if you have the right team around, you won’t have a problem with that.”
The burgeoning tennis star with the broad smile likes to tease his father, who travels with him most of the time now. The younger Tiafoe is grateful for the life his father provided but joked that maybe his dad enjoys the attention more than he admits.
“He’s great, annoying at times, but he’s great, he loves it,” the ATP player said, laughing as he explained how his dad embraces attention at tournaments. “We’re trying to leave and he’s always talking to somebody. But it’s unbelievable what he’s done for me and my brother to be in this position. “
Having won just over $1 million in career prize money already, in addition to his endorsement deals, Tiafoe has been able to buy his parents a house and begin planning a future that could lead to a life few can imagine. It’s an opportunity that has the humble star seeing the world from a far more mature prospective than most his age.
“It’s unbelievable, like my dad said in a couple interviews. If you asked me when I was younger if I was going to be here at 20 years old winning a title and being in a position to not only help myself but help my family, it’s an unbelievable place to be in. Hopefully I’ll keep going forward. It’s bigger than tennis,” Tiafoe said. “I play just for myself and my family. I just want to have plenty more people play tennis, I think it’s a great sport. You get to travel the world, see plenty of things.”
And at the end of the day, one year after being a teenager, he realizes that on the court, not his parents, his team nor anyone else can put the ball over the net. “In one-on-one sports, it’s all on you. You’ve got nobody helping you really. You can say you have your team, but at the end of the day you swing the racquet, so it builds character.”
And that’s not all.
As the first African American male to win the Delray Beach Open, Tiafoe is a de facto pioneer, leading the way for others to emulate and admire just by being himself. “Obviously a lot of young black people are playing football and basketball, and I would love for them to play tennis – that’s one of my biggest motivations, to get more black people playing tennis,” Tiafoe said in a tone that seemed to represent a relaxed approach to pioneering. “I’m a tennis player, it doesn’t matter really what race, I’m not really big into all that – everybody is the same to me as long as you’re friendly. I love everyone and I’ll inspire anyone I can...especially younger people.”
Dressed in a “Rep Your City” Nike T-shirt, floppy Washington Capitals fishing hat and University of Maryland print shorts down to his knees, Tiafoe said he reps the “whole DMV” (Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area...and he does it with style.
And his game is stylish as well.
“I get real pumped up; I get really excited,” Tiafoe said about the way he plays the game. “I’ve got my own swagger out there. I feel like it’s good for people to see something different and everybody can be their own person and bring quality tennis.”