A year ago, Frances Tiafoe traveled to the US Open, which is popular in the tennis world but little known outside of the tennis world. He was the first American to reach the semifinals of the US Open since 2006 and the first black American since Arthur Ashe.
Tiafoe pulled it off by upsetting the great Rafael Nadal in an emotional, magnetic match in what a colleague put it at the time, in what a colleague put it at the time, “a stadium that was filled to the rafters and after almost every point the noise was booming from the roof.” When he finally lost to Carlos Alcaraz in five sets in the semifinals, Michelle Obama asked to see him afterwards to thank him and comfort him. And the national media rushed to tell his story – an unusual one in a predominantly white, affluent sport.
Ahead of this year's Open, Tiafoe is ranked No. 10 in the world. No longer the underdog, he now struggles with the burden and blessing of the expectations and distractions of sports stars. I met a week before the Open at the Rock Creek Tennis Center in Washington, DC, not far from where he was born. We've talked about whether his story truly represents the “American Dream,” whether he's looking forward to Novak Djokovic's retirement and… Pickleball. This interview has been abridged and edited for length and clarity.
I wonder how it is at this moment in your career. They are portrayed in magazines. i just saw you Vanity Fair. You have NBA stars in your box. It must be pretty wild.
Yes, I talk about it all the time. The adage that your life can change overnight is 100 percent true. After beating Rafa Nadal at the Open last year, I felt like I was completely changed. You don't realize what you're doing, how crazy it is while you're doing it, because you're doing it. I think after that when I go home and buy little things from CVS and my ladies, they're like, ‘Oh my god, I can't believe that's you.' It was crazy. It's definitely not intended for everyone. It's definitely a life change.
can you tell me something about it I mean very few people will have that experience.
You need really solid people around you. Everyone says that but doesn't really live by it. Many people will want to take your time. Suddenly everyone wants to be your best friend. The famous guy wants to hang out, and he can at this point, but maybe you shouldn't. And I think the biggest thing for me is learning to say no. I have to do a lot better than that. I've seen it eat up a lot of people. It's on people's minds.
What did you say “no” to, what you wanted to do?
Even little things like performing at one of my new brand partners, which would have been a cool meeting up with Matt Damon, who I'm a huge fan of. But I can't do it, can't go I was allowed to take part in a tournament. And it's like, ahhh.
You know, like going to The Shop with LeBron – things I've always wanted to do but the scheduling just didn't quite work out. And then of course parties. You will be invited, but you should probably enter a tournament. The reason people know you? You should probably stick with it.
When you say you've seen other people lose their way –
People who are so hot for a second and then you just don't hear about it anymore. And I think that's the difference between one-hit wonders and long-lived people. It's just that they're so obsessed with what they're doing and what brought them to a certain place.
I want to talk a little about your backstory. You are the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone. When you were little, your father was a construction worker who literally helped build an elite tennis center in College Park, Maryland. And then he got a job there as an administrator. And you actually lived there part-time with your father and twin brother. And you started training there at the age of 5, which is amazing.
These details of your life are the headlines of most articles about you. Do you feel like people are getting your story right? Are there things you think people don't understand when they talk about your style?
I have the feeling that people feel that way and don't. People hear it, they know about it, but I don't think they realize how crazy it actually is. I mean, I was really a big vision, a huge vision. And it just goes to show that being great at something just takes a certain level of obsession, and that's what I had. Honestly, I just hope it inspires a lot of people.
You've talked about how extraordinary your story is. And I think there are several ways to think about it. Version one is that this is the American dream, that a family can come to this country and within a generation their son can be one of the top ten tennis players in the world. But I think there's another version: without incredible luck, you could have been just as talented and just as ambitious as you are, and still never have become a professional tennis player.
How do you feel about the balance between those two versions – that your story shows both the incredible opportunity in America and that there are these inequalities that make it that much harder for someone like you to get where They are?
Ironically, I tend to think of it as the second version.
Really? Then what does your story say about why there aren't more Tiafoes?
Well, it's the lack of access, right? The greatest thing about tennis is that it's so hard to just start playing. It's very, very difficult for people in low-income areas to just play tennis. Shoes, racquet, clothing, strings, playing time. If it's cold and you play inside, you pay for the court. You pay for the coaching. I mean, if I'm a little kid, why not just go play basketball where I need three other boys playing two on two and playing a basketball hoop? It's child's play.
I think that's the crazy thing. I imagine if I wasn't in this situation like you said –
That your father got the job at this place that allowed you to be seen and play.
Think how many people in my situation could do what I do. People from a similar background to mine could do something special. I am thinking of that. Why aren't more people lucky enough to be in this position?
There were hardly any black American elite tennis players. How do you diagnose this problem?
That's why I see my story this way. I mean, 50 years until an African American reached the semifinals of the US Open? fifty years. Are you telling me that in 50 years a black man won't be able to be in the semifinals of the US Open?
Admittedly, it was a great achievement for me! But I don't want to wait another 50.
I would like to ask you about another problem, or maybe you think it is related. But it really begs the question of why American male gamers have generally struggled so much over the past two decades. An American has not won a Grand Slam since 2003. And until your appearance last year, there really weren't any US stars like before among the men. Agassi and Sampras, McEnroe, Connors. Why do you think American men in general have it so hard?
That's always a fun question. I've been dealing with this for a long time.
I think it's different than what we just talked about. My rebuttal is always: It doesn't matter where the flag comes from. Essentially, it was four guys winning Grand Slams for a decade. One of the guys is still in it no matter how old he is. He doesn't seem to stop.
He is 36. Djokovic.
Exactly. So I don't think that's really a flag issue. I think it's just a timing issue. I mean, the best tennis decade ever.
But we are in this moment of the changing of the guard. Roger Federer retired last year. Nadal, who you beat at the US Open last year, is having a tough season due to injuries. He has also spoken about retiring. Djokovic is still strong in the game but he is actually 36 years old. Are you secretly glad these guys are slowing down?
Yes and no. When I was younger my goal was to beat one of these guys at the highest level. You want to be the best, so you have to beat the best. So I'm not like that Oh man I can't wait for these guys to stop. I think that's a bad mentality. I think it is I need to get better. I have to beat these guys.
I mean, I play against Rafa last year. I should have more legs than him. Should! And it motivates me. Because even if Novak retires, there are new people. Carlos Alcaraz is very good. There will always be someone to defeat.
I have seen this conversation They had Chris Eubanks and Ben Shelton, two other young black American players. And you said, “We're going to be the reason the game changes.” What did you mean by that?
I'm just thinking about diversity in sport, right? They bring a whole different demographic into play. It's history and you're watching it live. That's why Chris Eubanks' run at Wimbledon was so great. It's iconic stuff in a predominantly white sport. So I think we have a slightly different influence. You see more and more people of color in the stadium paying the hard earned money to watch because it's history, it's different.
How do you feel about more people using their hard-earned cash to get into the stands? Do you bring people of color into sports?
it means everything to me It means everything to me, but at the same time you also feel a damn obligation to perform and do your best for them.
It is interesting. You were just talking about that tension, which while it feels great to be able to inspire people, also feels like a burden. And I think most successful people of color would say that being first and only is really difficult. Because there is this tension. Do you feel like it pushes you further, or do you feel like it can weigh you down at times?
That's a great question. First of all: yes, if you reach it, definitely give it some thought. I don't want to be the first and only like I said before. But I think it inspires me, man. It really does. It makes me want to have longevity at a high level with this thing. Because you're thinking of Serena and Venus. That's why you create Sloane Stephens, who wins a Grand Slam. That's why you create a Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka. And that's the position I want to be in, isn't it?
But the work doesn't end until you reach the ultimate goal, which is to win a Grand Slam.
Is that your goal at the moment? That's it?
That's the only thing that matters, to be fair. If I win a Grand Slam, there is nothing that anyone can say or ask of me after that.
So you've been pretty vocal about how you think the sport of tennis should modernize and attract new fans. You've said you'd like the sport to take a lead from basketball and be more relaxed about fan behavior. Why do you think that would be a good thing?
People say: oh, that's not this game, that's not tennis. Well, the question was how do we attract younger fans. If you go to a soccer game, to a football game, to a baseball game, you don't shut up, do you?
It's entertainment. Of course you need a little more structure in tennis. But for example between games, when people are standing at the top of the stadium and asking the usher: ‘Well, when can I come down? I pay for the tickets and I can't even come and go as I please?”
I don't want to change everything, but within reason. I think a lot more young people would say, “Okay, that's cool.” You know, the music is more consistent, maybe between dots or in high-pressure moments.
You think of the US Open atmosphere and they do it anyway. I play in this stadium, it rocks. People are totally drunk and scream whenever they want. You can't control the environment anyway, so you might as well rock it.
But hey man, I don't make the rules.
OK, I have a question for you. What do you think of Pickleball?
[Laughs] I think it's a sport I should invest in. I don't think it's a sport I like. I don't think it's a great sport. But from a business perspective, I love it.
I don't think it takes very much skill. I go to Florida and I see a lot of older folks playing and joking and having fun with the kids, but in terms of creating all these leagues, tournaments, and pro events, I just feel like tennis players who aren't quite going to make it here trying to do something out there.
And they're closing tennis courts to build pickleball courts.
I find it ridiculous that this sport has an influence on the game of tennis.
Thank you for spoiling me. To come back to your generation: Carlos Alcaraz is on everyone's lips. He's 20, has won two Slams and looks like he's just starting out. Do you worry he's a player to beat?
No it's good! That's good. He is good. He's good for the game. A damn good player. He will be special. He will be a guy who will push me to always want more and to do my best because if I want to achieve something special, I have to turn to him. Once Novak leaves, he's the guy to beat.
Which brings me to where you are right now. You are number 10 in the world. You won a few tournaments this year, but you also lost early on in others, including one Heartthrob at Wimbledon. How would you rate your overall performance this year?
I think I've had a good year. I've won over 30 games. I've won a few titles. Week-to-week, I'm probably the most consistent this year I've ever had. But I'd much rather take more L's, more losses, and a deeper run in a slam. So we got another chance. And of course I want to dig deep and get into the title fight.
How are you preparing for this?
i know what i want to do I know I want to win the event. It's about beating the guys you're supposed to be beating. But it is what it is. I'm 25. It doesn't have to be now.
I would like to ask you a little about the ins and outs of your game. They changed coaches. You have revised your technique, especially your forehand. I was watching the Netflix episode Break Point – that's the documentary series about the tennis tour – and there was a lot of talk about your focus, about trying to improve your consistency. So when you think about how your game has changed, do you think the change was more mental or physical?
The physical side played a role. I've gotten a lot fitter and leaner in the last few years. But I think the mental side is the biggest. I just made a choice. I made the decision to devote myself to the game. I made the decision to become more professional. I have made the decision to give up my external tennis activities a little more. Choose your fun moments – try to make tennis your #1 priority.
So say no to LeBron.
Was there a moment when you made that decision?
Yes. When I went into the pandemic, I wasn't doing well. Plays terribly. I was just enjoying life and getting really complacent and it showed clearly in my game. It was the first time I really experienced adversity related to the game of tennis. I lost a lot of games and didn't really know how to deal with it. So that was very tough.
And then when I'm just having a chat with my guys and I'm looking at the rankings and I'm like, dude, these guys are ahead of me, they're no better than me. So that's not the reality. This can't be my reality. And from there I hired coaches. Most of my team is new. My fitness trainer travels with me a lot more. I just slowly started making decisions. be coachable. Stop pretending I know everything. Just let go of old habits slowly, which is very difficult. It was a long process but it was good. The last three years have been good. I have changed a lot.
I want to bring you back to the US Open last year. Because, you know, losing is terrible for everyone, but it feels like it hits you especially hard. In your post-match interview, after losing in the semifinals, even though it was that incredible moment, and I quote here, you said, “I feel like I let you down.” Who did you let down?
The country. I have never felt so much weight. I have never felt so much energy. I checked into my hotel three weeks before this game. It was kind of like nobody really bothered me. I end up with security at my door, people are freaking out, I'm all over New York, can't go anywhere, everyone comes to the game.
And I really believed that I could do it. After beating Rafa, after securing that win and giving everything I had. You know, it just wasn't good enough. And in that particular moment, I really felt that way. I felt like I let these guys down. I didn't feel sorry for myself, but I let her know that I wanted to come back and finish the job. It was an emotional moment. It was very tough. No competitor wants to feel like they've come up short.
And now, just before this year's Open –
I feel like I'm doing pretty well. In terms of dynamics, it hasn't been a great few weeks. But honestly, no matter how I played, I always feel like I can do something special in New York. That crowd behind me. It has something to do with people supporting you and wanting it more than you almost do. You feel like you have no choice but to give it your all.