| By Peter Mendelsohn
Photo Credit: Lee Seidner

 

Many of you have dealt with the awkwardness of hearing someone else’s lovemaking session.  Perhaps you had an overzealous roommate or the walls in your apartment were too thin.

Maybe you put your headphones on, turned up the music, and hoped the noises would end soon.  Or maybe you just decided to go for a walk and got the heck out of there.

These options were not available to Frances Tiafoe.

You see, he was in the middle of a professional tennis match in Sarasota, Florida. 

Tiafoe was off to a good start, having won the first set and going up an early break in the second. 

Then this happened.

 

Tiafoe tried to play through it; but the ‘sounds’ wouldn’t stop.  Two points later, with the noises still permeating the court, he decided to let the lovebirds know exactly how he felt.

 

 

That moment was one of the many reasons I had to get an interview with Tiafoe.  I had to ask him what was going through his mind when he made that comment.

“I made that comment in the moment,” Tiafoe said.  “I really thought it couldn’t be that good, but clearly it was!”

The 20-year-old American has always been quick-witted.  After a win at the New York Open where he’d effectively used his drop shot, he quipped, “Today my hands were soft. I guess I put on some good Nivea this morning.” 

More than catchy-one liners, Tiafoe is starting to have a major impact in the men’s game.   

In 2017, he won two ATP Challenger titles.

This past February, he won his maiden ATP title at the Delray Beach Open. In doing so, he became the youngest American to win an ATP title since Andy Roddick in 2002.

The 20-year-old is one of just six players under the age of 21 in the top 100 of the ATP World Rankings. 

He is also the only black American in the top 100 of the rankings.

While black American women have thrived in tennis over the last few generations, it’s been a different story for their male counterparts.

Players like James Blake and MaliVai Washington had a lot of success on tour, but neither was able to win a Grand Slam or ATP Masters 1000s singles title. 

Arthur Ashe was the last African-American to capture a Grand Slam, winning Wimbledon in 1975. Many people believe Tiafoe can be the one to snap that streak, and he hopes to play a role in increasing the popularity of tennis among African-Americans.

“Even though I love basketball and football, I’d love to see more black people playing tennis,” said Tiafoe.  “That’s a big thing I want to get across.” 

He understands he may be seen as a role model to young black kids, a responsibility he doesn’t shy away from. 

“I want people to look at Frances Tiafoe and say: ‘I want to be like that guy when I grow up’,” said Tiafoe. 

“Little kids are watching.  I’m doing it for the kids. My parents are Sierra Leone immigrants, I’m doing it for Sierra Leone.”

 
Tiafoe’s father, Frances Sr. immigrated to Maryland in 1993.  His mother, Alphina, arrived three years later, fleeing the civil war in Sierra Leone.  

When Frances and his twin brother Franklin were just toddlers, Frances Sr. signed up as a day laborer to help with the construction of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland.

After construction was completed, Frances Sr. got a job as the club’s maintenance man.  His starting salary was $21,000, and he regularly worked continuous day and night shifts. 

He was given a vacant room at the club to sleep in, which became home for his twin boys five days a week.

When Frances was five-years-old, he was enrolled in the club’s tennis clinic free of charge. 

He thrived despite the fact that he often had to play with hand-me-down rackets.

Some of his oldest memories are from those early days at the JTCC, where he began to dream big at a very young age.

“Playing against the wall five, six years-old, and feeling like I’m at the U.S. Open”, said Tiafoe.  “Thinking I’m at the U.S. Open.” 

When he was 15, Tiafoe became the youngest player to ever win the Orange Bowl.  A year later, he made the decision to turn professional. 

His mother wasn’t happy.  She knew that her son’s tennis pedigree would earn him a scholarship anywhere he wanted to go, and she wanted to see her son attend college.

Four years later, Tiafoe appears to have made the right decision.

The 20-year-old has already earned more than a million dollars in prize money. 

But his mom still has some reservations.

“Obviously she doesn’t feel so bad about it now,” said Tiafoe.  “But a part of her still wishes I did [go to college].”

“I’ve been able to do a lot of things for my family.  I bought a house for my family.”

Throughout the interview, Tiafoe was willing to discuss any subject I raised in a thoughtful, authentic manner. 

At the Australian Open earlier this year, Roger Federer encouraged players to be more open when speaking with the media. 

“I feel like sometimes some players have gotten a little bit too robot-like,” Federer said.

“I would like to see more players just being really themselves in front of the press, not worrying so much about making mistakes.”

Tiafoe has no such problem, as evidenced by the way he reflected on his three losses to Federer in 2017.

Many players who dealt with a similar fate might give a cliché answer about how they simply appreciated the opportunity to play against the 20-time Grand Slam champion.

Not Tiafoe.

His first loss to Federer came in Miami, where the Swiss legend prevailed 7-6(2), 6-3.

“We got in the breaker, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Whoa, I wasn’t expecting to be in the breaker,” said Tiafoe.  “I think that’s why I lost in straights there.”

In October, Federer crushed Tiafoe 6-1, 6-3 in Basel. 

“I was not ready to play,” said Tiafoe.  “That (2017) was my first real year on tour playing all the tour events, and my body was pretty beat up.”

Some people might think that Tiafoe is making excuses.

But he’s just speaking his mind, telling you how he honestly felt.  He’s not giving the diplomatic answer that he is ‘supposed’ to give.

 

It’s the exact forthrightness that Federer is looking for from his colleagues in the tennis world.   

It also tells you something about Tiafoe’s mentality. He’s not satisfied losing a close match to arguably the greatest player of all time.  He wants to win.  

His loss to Federer on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the 2017 US Open may have been the toughest of them all.

Tiafoe won two of the match’s first three sets, but Federer came back, prevailing 6-4 in the fifth set. 

“He won by the skin of his teeth,” Tiafoe said after the match.

Despite the loss, Tiafoe had turned one of his childhood predictions into a reality.    

“I told my dad I was always going to be on that court playing one of the greats,” said Tiafoe.  “And I was.”

The young American always had a drive for greatness. More than anything else, it’s that drive which still pushes him today.

“That’s why I wake up every day and that’s why it’s easy to put in the hard work,” said Tiafoe. 

“You want to be remembered.  You want to be remembered as being great.”

 

 

Peter Mendelsohn is a contributing writer to Long Island and New York Tennis Magazines. He is the owner of tennisdork.com.  He is currently pursuing a degree in sports journalism.  He previously spent five years as a personal injury lawyer in Toronto, Canada. He may be reached by phone at (647) 984-5509 or email at peter.r.mendelsohn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterMendel7