Frances Tiafoe: ‘I want to inspire people – representation is everything’

Frances Tiafoe: ‘I want to inspire people - representation is everything’
Exclusive interview: American has gone from sleeping on folding tables to a genuine contender on tour and hopes his career can inspire a new generation of players

A few days after becoming the youngest boy in history to win the Orange Bowl, one of the most prestigious junior tournaments in tennis, Frances Tiafoe walked back to his family’s apartment in Prince George’s County. In the small room he shared with his twin brother, there were still the misshapen and broken racquets they’d first picked up, the discarded remnants of others’ lives that had sparked an unlikely dream.

Tiafoe’s story was born at the Junior Tennis Champions Centre, but the “miracle” stretches much further into history. The son of Sierra Leone immigrants, his father, Frances Sr, had worked in a diamond mine before fleeing the civil war to reach the US. Upon arriving in Maryland, he found a job at a construction firm and helped to build a state of the art tennis facility brick by brick. So impressed by his attitude, the owners offered Frances Sr a permanent role as a caretaker and allowed him to convert a spare office into a bedroom, where Tiafoe and his brother slept on the floor or on folding tables five times a week, using their every waking moment to learn a game they’d fallen into by an accident of fate.

“It’s funny, people think my life must have changed quickly [after winning the Orange Bowl],” he says. “Nothing changed. I was living in that apartment in that area until I turned pro. The tennis academy was a place to play but we were big outliers there. There were kids with chauffeurs, senators’ kids. We were just trying to get out the hood.”

For Tiafoe, those defining days will never drift into distant memory. The unique adversity he’s overcome, in a sport where fairy tales are few and far between, remains the fuel for his hunger and he admits that, whenever he’s forgotten the chip on his shoulder or taken comfort in his success, his form has dipped as a result. “It’s a story man, everyone has got their own story,” he says of a brief lapse in results that’s seen him slip from a high of No 29 to No 57 in the world rankings. “In the early years of my career, I had such an urgency to get to the top and make real money. Now I want to get myself back to a higher ranking I know I can play. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved but there’s a lot more to do.”

Perhaps, that dip was always unavoidable. With his success on the senior tour, Tiafoe has been able to buy both his parents houses. The rough edges that once dominated his life have been smoothed. He has drawn praise from LeBron James, was once represented by Jay-Z’s RocNation and shares a close relationship with Serena Williams. When the battle for survival itself has already been won, it can be difficult to sustain the same levels of ambition. But if security is no longer the motivation, Tiafoe knows his results on court can translate to his influence off of it. Namely, for the same reason he has always admired Williams, he wants to be a role model for those who might not previously have had one.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “Without the Williams sisters, there is no Naomi Osaka, no Coco Gauff, no Sloane Stephens, no Madison Keys point blank. They put people of colour in the position to believe they can do it as the underdog. I want to be that guy for the men’s side. I want to be one of the guys who can put two weeks together and win a slam. It doesn’t matter how small or big your platform is, everyone has people who want to be like them. To be that guy, to inspire them, to be there and pick up the phone when they call, representation is everything.”

A quick, athletic and intelligent player, Tiafoe has long possessed the technique to challenge the world’s best players. It remains to be seen, though, whether he can squeeze everything out of his potential to conquer those fine margins that have escaped him. As of yet, he has not passed the third round at a grand slam or defeated any of the Big Three, but at just 23 years old he still has plenty of time. His draw at Wimbledon this week, facing Stefanos Tsitsipas, represents a fearsome test against the player expected to lead the new generation of which Tiafoe of now a permanent fixture.

“He’s special, he’s got all the shots, he works hard and has a good team but I’m excited for it,” he says. “It’s the kind of match I get up for. I feel like I always play really good tennis against the top guys. I’ve made upsets like this before and, if not, I’ve definitely tested guys and put myself in positions to win. I’m going to back myself but I know it’s going to be tough.”

What Tiafoe guarantees is that he won’t freeze under the spotlight. At this level, hesitancy and second-guessing are fatal to one’s chances. Instead, he will weaponise the risks he’s taken to succeed against all odds. After all, when you’ve already conquered life’s biggest hurdle, what’s left to fear.

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