It’s a story that could only be written in America. For tennis phenom Frances Tiafoe, it’s a fantasy come true.
On Tuesday, US-born Tiafoe, 24, walked into Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City to play in Round 4 of the US Open. He didn’t think he’d make it beyond the first set. And it appears the expectations of those in the wider tennis world were even lower.
His opponent, after all, was 36-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal, the 22-time winner of men’s singles Grand Slam titles and, for more than a decade, consistently ranked one of the world’s three greatest tennis champions and one of the top players of all time.
Certainly, Tiafoe already has had success on the court. But he was considered too young and, under the glare of the international spotlight, too untested at this level. The match was Nadal’s to lose.
And some 3½ hours, four sets and many gallons of sweat and tears later, he did just that – overpowered, overwhelmed and overmatched by this nobody, the child of African immigrants who grew up, literally, on a tennis court. Not for love of the game, but because his hardworking, self-sacrificing, come-from-nothing parents couldn’t afford to put another roof over his head.
And after he won, Tiafoe dissolved into shocked tears, almost too stunned to speak as he headed into the Open’s quarterfinals and Nadal headed home.
“I felt like the world stopped,” Tiafoe said. “I couldn’t hear anything for a minute.”
TV commentators, meanwhile, scrambled to find videotape of his early years.
Then basketball legend LeBron James gave him a shoutout on Twitter. And the unimaginable, abruptly, became real.
“Bro,” Tiafoe said, “I was going crazy.”
The remarkable story of Frances Tiafoe is the classic child-of-immigrants tale – writ large.
Constant Tiafoe and Alfina Kamara came to the United States from civil-war-splintered Sierra Leone in West Africa in the 1990s and met in this country. In January 1998, Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, were born in Maryland.
The next year, the dad of two began working as a day laborer on a construction crew building the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park. After the facility was completed, he was hired as the on-site custodian. But with two mouths to feed and no money for day care – and an iffy neighborhood to escape – Constant Tiafoe accepted a place to live inside a vacant office at the tennis center, where he slept with his boys, five days a week, for 11 years.
The twins stayed with their mom when she was not working the night shift as a nurse.
From age 4, Frances and Franklin played tennis regularly at their makeshift home. From age 5, the boys started training. And the rest, as they say, is history.
After Frances won his match with Nadal, his first thoughts were with his parents.
“To see them experience me beat Rafa Nadal — they’ve seen me have big wins, but to beat those ‘Mount Rushmore’ guys? For them, I can’t imagine what was going through their heads,” said Tiafoe.
“I mean, they’re going to remember today for the rest of their lives.”
That a young man should rise to worldwide renown a single generation after his kin arrived on these shores is not just an example of one extraordinary family. It is a deeply American story.
Perhaps nowhere else on this planet can a person’s natural talents combine with his willingness to work like a fiend reap such rewards. Remember this the next time the bash-America crowd tears down the greatest nation on earth.
On Wednesday, Frances Tiafoe is set to compete in his biggest contest to date – the US Open’s quarterfinals. No one can appreciate this monumental opportunity better than Frances Tiafoe.
But no matter the result, he has already won.