Frances Tiafoe began his professional career with the aim of helping his parents to have a better life, but admitted here on Sunday at the Australian Open: “Now, I’m trying to do it for me.”
The American celebrated his 21st birthday by registering the biggest win of his career when he beat Grigor Dimitrov 7-5, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 to reach the quarter-finals ofa Grand Slamtournament for the first time. On Tuesday the world No 39 will take on Rafael Nadal after the 32-year-old Spaniard swept aside Tomas Berdych, beating the Czech 6-0, 6-1, 7-6.
“I told my parents 10 years ago that I was going to do this, that I was going to change their lives and my life,” an emotional Tiafoe said after his victory. “Now I’m in the quarters of a Slam at 21. I can’t believe it, man.”
Tiafoe’s life story is an inspiring one. His parents, Constant and Alphina, emigrated from Sierra Leone to the United States in the mid-1990s and settled in Maryland. Frances and his twin brother Franklin were born there in 1998.
Constant had a job as a caretaker at a wealthy tennis club, which meant that his boys had good opportunities to try their hand at the sport. The three of them lived for more than 10 years in a makeshift apartment at the club until Constant left his job, whereupon they moved into a one-bedroom apartment shared with other relatives.
Tiafoe’s talent on the tennis court quickly became apparent and he had a successful junior career. He soon made an impression as a professional, won his first title at Delray Beach last year and has made rapid progress up the world rankings.
The success has enabled him to help his family. “In March I bought a house in Maryland for my mum,” he said. “My dad is in an apartment in Orlando. Just putting us in better situations – I was able to do stuff like that. At the beginning, that was just my goal as a kid. I didn’t want to go to college. I knew that from a young age this was what I wanted to do.”
Tiafoe remembers seeing the wealth around him when he was growing up. “There was a ton of wealthy guys,” he recalled. “You had cats rolling in there with chauffeurs, all that. I’m not saying you can’t make it if you grew up from a wealthy situation because a ton of people have, but obviously that gave me an incentive, a reason to work every day, to understand why you do it.“Obviously it’s essentially about how badly do you really want to be successful?
What does that really mean to you? Why are you doing it?Obviously you make money – and then what? If there’s actually something that is more to you, it’s easier to get in the gym and do it each and every day.”As he was making his way in tennis Tiafoe’s father encouraged him to visit Sierra Leone “because he thought I was getting spoiled”. Tiafoe explained: “He said: ‘You need to learn something, get cultured.’ I came back definitely thinking differently. I came back appreciating everything.
“People were talking about me and Franklin over there. You have people making fun of us for wearing PE shirts to play tennis, holes in our shoes.He said: ‘You guys don’t even understand. You guys have got American passports. You’ve got the opportunity to do something great. Go and do it.’ That put things in perspective for me. I ain’t ever acting spoiled ever again.”
Tiafoe walks with a swagger on and off the court. He explained: “Pops always said: ‘Carry yourself with some confidence always on and off court, whatever you’re doing.’ He just always taught me that. That’s kind of why I do it.
“But definitely people can feel it on the other side of the court, I believe. Once you start going like this [putting your head down], your opponent can feel that and get energy from it.”
Tiafoe is a big basketball fan and has copied LeBron James with some of his on-court celebrations. “He’s a hero of everybody,” Tiafoe said.
Dimitrov had been showing signs of an upturn in his career after a difficult 2018, but Tiafoe made a fine start to their match and fought back well after the Bulgarian launched a comeback by winning the third set.
Nadal and Tiafoe have never met in competition or on the practice court, but the Spaniard says he is well aware of the American’s ability.
“He has everything,” Nadal said. “He’s quick. He serves well. He has a very quick forehand. He’s a very dynamic, aggressive player. Of course, he’s dangerous. He’s in the quarterfinals. He won great matches during the whole event. It’s going to be a tough one, as you can expect in the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam. You cannot expect an easy match.”
Berdych’s only victory in his previous 19 matches against Nadal had been here four years ago, when the Spaniard was coping with a number of physical issues. Last year it was the 33-year-old Czech who struggled with his fitness as he took a six-month break because of a back problem. However, he had made a promising start to his 2019 campaign, reaching the final in his first tournament in Doha and winning his first three matches here for the loss of only one set.
Facing Nadal, however, was quite another matter. The 32-year-old Spaniard was on his game from the start, hitting huge ground strokes from the back of the court and pulling his opponent from one side of the court to the other.
Berdych won only 10 points in the opening set, including just four on his own serve. With Nadal leading 3-0 in the second set, the world No 57 finally got on the board and raised his arm aloft in celebration. He wore a wry smile on his face and the crowd cheered, but it was only delaying the inevitable.