Frances Tiafoe wants to be the one who delivers. He’s optimistic about the future of men’s tennis in the United States, but perhaps you are not. And for that, no one could blame you. It’s been a long winter for the American men, as plenty of so-called saviors have struggled before falling in the cold. This time, though, things look different. Tiafoe doesn’t seem like the others.
Since 2003, the American men in the sport have been mired in a drought. Andy Roddick, at 21, won that year’s U.S. Open with a game distinct to his country: big serve, big forehand, loud and booming everything. Then Roger Federer went full Roger Federer, and Roddick’s window slammed shut. The Omaha, Nebraska, native made four more slam finals during the remainder of his career and lost all of them to the Swiss. Andre Agassi dropped a final, too, in the 2005 U.S. Open. That’s been it for the U.S. The country that had had a champion or challenger on the men’s tour for decades—from Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors in the 1970s to John McEnroe in the ’80s to Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, and Agassi in the ’90s—suddenly had nothing. An American man hasn’t advanced to the final of a slam since Roddick, at Wimbledon in 2009.
Every other hope has come up short. Usually, it hasn’t even been close. Ryan Harrison, a fiery player with a promising junior career was not, in fact, the “future of American men’s tennis.” He’s now 26 and ranked 83rd in the world. Jack Sock, another Next Big Thing, rose as high as eighth in 2017 before enduring a woeful 2018, when he failed to win consecutive matches for much of the season. He has never advanced past the fourth round of a major; he lost to qualifier Alex Bolt (who two years ago had quit tennis altogether) in the first round of the 2019 Australian Open and is currently ranked 105th. Donald Young, the youngest junior world no. 1 in history and one of the most decorated junior players in history, graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 2007. That didn’t translate to success in the pros. Young has had a respectable, if entirely unremarkable career; at 29, he is ranked outside of the top 200.
So what for decades would have been commonplace, a quarterfinal run by a young, all-court American man, is now a surprisingly rare occurrence. Yet that’s what Tiafoe has put together in Melbourne. As Monday turns into Tuesday, the 21-year-old will face Rafael Nadal for a spot in the semifinals.
Tiafoe’s past week has been equal parts dramatic and clinical. He knocked off mainstays Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov in steely four-setters and topped journeyman Andreas Seppi in five sets. Each time, after the post-match courtesies, he’s celebrated with vigor, creating almost as many highlights without a racket as he has with one.
If Tiafoe finds success, he’ll be a sure thing for marketers. He has a natural way with the crowd; he roars after winning tough points or games. And he has a knack for incorporating other elements of culture: He’s made a point of mimicking an American prodigy in another sport.
(We know you’re excited, Nike.)
This has been a long time coming. Tiafoe has been able to buy a drink for only two days, but the tennis community has anticipated his rise for years. He’s the country’s latest, greatest hope, and he might just be the real thing.
Tiafoe was born in 1998 in Hyattsville, Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C. He’s the son of two immigrants from Sierra Leone who fled their country earlier in the ’90s to escape civil war. When Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, were a year old, their father, Frances Sr., began working as a day laborer on the construction of the Junior Tennis Champions Center. After the facility was built, Frances Sr. was hired as the JTCC’s maintenance director and went about cleaning during days and nights, treating the clay courts, and living in an empty room at the complex. The twins would sometimes sleep there as well, when their mother, Alphina, worked night shifts as a nurse.
The boys grew up on the tennis courts at the JTCC. Even compared with other pros, Tiafoe’s education began early; the twins told Washington Post reporter Liz Clarke that they started interacting with the sport at such a young age that their first tennis experiences predate the development of their memories. Both trained at the JTCC for free starting when they were 5, and benefactors quickly flocked to Frances, who showed an aptitude for the game. On the junior circuit, where many kids are shuttled between events by doting parents and advisers, Tiafoe’s childhood coach, Misha Kouznetsov, scraped the bottom of his savings to drive 9-year-old Frances to tournaments. Tiafoe’s parents, for years, couldn’t afford to take time off work to watch their son play.
As a junior Tiafoe won the Les Petits As in 2012 and the Orange Bowl in 2013—two tournaments that have traditionally served as launching pads for future top pros. By 2014 he was being courted by Roc Nation Sports, which had never before signed a tennis player. In 2017 he cracked the top 100 and pushed Federer to five sets in a night match at the U.S. Open. Now, the Australian Open finally looks like the breakthrough.
Tiafoe plays a game that’s at once forward and backward. His forehand is a bizarre gyrating sidewinder of a shot that singes the air. And while he scrambles about the baseline with determination and speed, he always seems drawn to the net. Against Dimitrov, he flummoxed the Bulgarian by following his pace to the center of the court. Tiafoe stands tall at 6-foot-2, but moves so quickly you’d swear he was shorter. He’s not a Zverev- or Giannis-type do-everything giant. He’s a different vision of the future.
If Tiafoe is indeed the savior of American men’s tennis, it will be fitting. His story is simultaneously a testament to the myth of the American dream and a direct refutation of the dominant political rhetoric of the moment. It seems almost too on the nose that, in 2019, the son of refugees would come along to inspire U.S. interest in men’s tennis, of all things. But perhaps it makes sense that after so many conventional prospects failed, an unconventional one could reverse the tide.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, we’re only here. Let’s just hope that more of Tiafoe’s celebrations are coming.