He is one of those rare players that regularly makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Frances Tiafoe has a way of letting you into his struggle, and his joy. The authentic, unassuming air; the honest, heartfelt passion for the sport; a showman’s swagger, raw emotions spilling out onto the court.
Then there’s the past, well-documented and awe inspiring.
His parents immigrated from Sierra Leone in the 1990s, escaping a civil war that claimed over 100,000 lives. His father took a job at a tennis club in Maryland, and Frances took his cues.
In an article penned for The Player’s Tribune in 2019, Tiafoe explained the depth of his feelings for his father. “My dad, man – I’m lucky,” he wrote. “He’s a good man. And I’m blessed because I got some of his drive … his will to get something done.”
In his quest to get something done, Tiafoe spent many nights at the tennis club, his father on the massage table in his makeshift office, Frances and his brother Franklin on couches…
Years later, here he is, standing outside the BNP Paribas Open’s main interview room on a breezy Sunday night, more than happy to chat about his hopes for a future that looks brighter by the season. He cuts a stealthy figure: sleek, strong and vibrant – switched on but mellow at the same time.
His roots-to-riches story half-complete, 24-year-old Tiafoe has his sights on the next step.
“If I play great tennis, I know where I can be, it’s just keeping my head down and doing the work, which I have been doing,” the current world No.30 says. “I’m just gonna worry about my next match.”
Tiafoe, who will face Andrey Rublev in the third round on Tuesday at Indian Wells, is always eager to test his mettle against the best in the world. Though he has only recently returned from a month off the tour due to an elbow injury, he relishes the big stage and a chance to throw some body blows at the tour’s alpha dogs.
“I live for those matches, I live for playing the best guys in the world,” he says. “Look I have nothing to lose, it’s my first tournament back, I’m just going to put on a show and try to win a tennis match.”
After years of cutting his teeth on tennis’ biggest stages, Tiafoe finally appears ready to go wheels up with his career after a few years stranded on the tennis tarmac.
Tiafoe won just three of his first 24 matches against the ATP’s top-10 and by March of 2021 many believed he might never figure it out. Since Wimbledon of last year, however, the American has won four of six against the top-10.
“It wasn’t a question of can I beat these guys?” Tiafoe said last year in Vienna. “It was: can I do it day in and day out? I’ve made changes, I’ve sacrificed things. I’m growing up.”
Tiafoe brushes off talk of reaching a career-high ranking, saying that he just wants to get on with his season after a month spent rehabbing. The No.4-ranked American is just 2-3 on the year after his 6-4, 6-4 win over Brandon Nakashima on Sunday, but only one spot shy of his best ranking of 29.
“I just need to get my year going,” he says. “I mean I’m ranked pretty high right now, if I can just keep stringing some matches together, it can be a good season. But yes, look, I just want to be present, take care of every match I can. I’m finally healthy, serving great, serving big again with no pain – it’s nice to be out there in front of fans and putting on a show for them.”
The road to a higher ranking is paved with consistency, and Tiafoe has worked hard to become a more steady, week-in, week-out presence on tour. It hasn’t been a simple mission for the American.
“Sometimes when he plays matches his mind may wander a little bit – I think that has been happening less and less and it kind of shows with his consistency,” says Jose Higueras, a former Director of Coaching for the USTA who won 16 titles and reached No.6 in the world. “He’s capable of playing with anybody but at the same time you have to be consistent enough if you want to win tournaments to play every day to a pretty high standard.”
Tiafoe is embracing the challenge. He has only begun to tease out his sky-high potential, and he knows it.
“Let’s take this career seriously, these next six, seven years and try to get the most out of myself,” he said at the end of last season. “I know what I can do, I don’t think anyone has ever doubted that, but it’s: what does Frances Tiafoe look like on a day-to-day basis?”
The sooner he can get his ducks in a row, the quicker Tiafoe can capitalize on an opportunity that is inevitably coming. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have won 61 of the last 74 Grand Slam titles on offer. Take those three out of the equation and the possibilities start to look endless for up and comers like Tiafoe.
“There’s an opening in tennis,” he says. “Rafa and these guys aren’t playing every week. Novak, whatever he’s going through. Fed and Andy on the brink, so, you know the [next generation’s] top guys are good, but they’re beatable. It’s exciting times for us, there’s finally an opening for us, and I think we’re going to take it.”