When 24-year-old Frances Tiafoe defeated tennis star Rafael Nadal in the round of 16 of the US Open tournament, he buried his head in his hands and circled the court aimlessly for a while, tears of happiness streaming down his face.
“I felt like the world stopped,” Tiafoe said shortly after the match, according to the AP. “I haven’t heard anything for a while,” he added.
But the experience was even more incredible, according to Tiafoe, for his parents, mother Alphina and father Constant, who immigrated to the United States when civil war raged in their native Sierra Leone.
“See how I beat Rafa Nadal? They’ve seen me win big matches, but beating these guys from Mount Rushmore? I can’t imagine what was going through their heads,” Tiafoe said shortly after the match, according to the Huffington Post. “I mean, they will remember today for the rest of their lives,” he added.
Foreign media are describing the victory as a great achievement and Tiafoe’s popularity is growing rapidly. His matches are watched closely in Sierra Leone, where tennis is normally overshadowed by football, with sports greats such as basketball star LeBron James congratulating him on his wins.
What is the story of the son of immigrants who beat Rafael Nadal?
“I slept on folding tables in the office”
Both of Tiafoe’s parents were born in Sierra Leone, Africa. However, they only met in the United States, where they arrived in the 1990s when they fled the civil war. After meeting, they moved to Maryland and soon after, twins Franklin and Frances were born.
The story of the tennis star began to be written when Frances’ father, Constant, got a job building the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, reports The New York Times. Because he did his job well, he was eventually promoted to site maintenance director and given his own office.
This very room became a partial home for Frances for a long time. His mother Alphina worked as a nurse and often stayed late at night during the week at the hospital. His parents therefore agreed that it would be better for the boy to spend time with his father at the tennis center. They converted a small office with one window into a room that became their home for five days a week.
“Sleeping on folding desks in the office. That’s where my adventure began. I was like, ‘How is this story going to end?’ I saw tennis as a way to get somewhere further. I was like, ‘Can you imagine doing that?’ It would be incredible. You can’t make that up. Now I want to use that story to inspire others. You don’t have to be high society to be great. If you want something in life, go for it,” Tiafoe describes his sporting beginnings in an interview with CBS.
Ultimately, the decision to settle in with the boys in the tennis club office proved pivotal to Tiafoe’s future career. As soon as the twins were old enough to hold tennis rackets, their father sent them to the courts, where Frances fell in love with tennis.
Tennis was supposed to pay for college
“Frances was obsessed with tennis,” says Mark Ein, an entrepreneur and chairman of the Citi Open in Washington, DC, who was involved in Tiafoe’s early tennis career. He met Tiephoeus when he was five years old and became his friend and mentor.
Already at that time, Tiafoe spent hours and hours on the tennis courts. He watched the older boys train and enthusiastically imitated their every move. He played against the wall with himself and practiced his serve tirelessly on the empty court until dark.
In addition to enthusiasm, Frances soon also showed a unique talent and great athletic prowess. Shortly after, Tiafoe was taken under the wing by a junior coach from Russia, Misha Kouznetsov, who guided him through the beginnings of tennis.
More about this year’s US Open tournament
The hysteria surrounding Serena, the rise of Kyrgios, the quarterfinals for Kvitová, Plíšková and the proven pair Krejčíková-Siniaková… The US Open entered the second half, things were happening in the first half.
“Nothing like this was planned,” Tiafoe said after defeating Rafael Nadal on Monday. No one planned that he would become a tennis star. According to Tiafoe, his parents took tennis as a means of securing a university education for the boys. The family had little money, so a scholarship was their only option.
However, Tiafoe achieved such extraordinary sports results at a young age that the university had to take a back seat. Instead of books, a professional tennis career opened up for Frances.
However, his road to victory over Nadal was not easy. Tiafoe turned professional in 2015 and has only reached the third round of a major tournament once in the following four years, at Wimbledon in 2018.
He finished last year ranked 38th in the world and is currently ranked 26th. However, that will improve after his breakout performance at the US Open regardless of how he fares against ninth seed Andrei Rublev on Wednesday.
Sports fans and analysts expect Tiafoe to have a bright career ahead of him. This is evidenced by the fact that Tiafoe is the youngest American to reach the quarterfinals of the US Open since 2006, when Andy Roddick did it at the age of 24.