Frances Tiafoe used to sleep at the tennis centre where his father was janitor, now the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone tells Donald McRae how he feels at taking on the great names in the sport
Its a movie, man, an absolute movie. I say it all the time, Frances Tiafoe exclaims of his incredible life story. Born into a family of west African immigrants, Tiafoe escaped the disadvantages of his early years in America to become one of the most exhilarating young players in world tennis. Four months ago, at the Australian Open, the 21-year-old came through a series of brutal matches to reach his first grand slam quarter-final. After each victory, Tiafoe screamed and tore off his shirt as if to show us how he had transformed his life.
A couple of times I was bursting out in tears because I was like, Damn, Im doing it, Tiafoe says as he remembers beating higher-ranked and more experienced players before running into Rafael Nadal. In the sunshine of Estoril, not far from Lisbon, Tiafoe shakes his head in wonder at his journey from Maryland to Melbourne.
Wow, he says, in a dreamy drawl, as if talking to himself, everything you talked about, everything you went through, brought you to the quarter-finals of a grand slam. Biggest cheque you ever made. LeBron James is talking about you. Everyones so worried about making a living but you did it. It felt beautiful.
As children, Tiafoe and his twin brother Franklin had slept on the floor and on narrow folding tables in an office at a tennis centre in Maryland, a short drive from Washington DC, where they grew up with their father. The little boy taught himself to play tennis by watching the privileged kids whose parents could afford to pay for their expensive tuition at the Junior Tennis Champions Centre. He used discarded rackets and, even if their size and weight did not suit him, Tiafoe found a way to hit the ball against a wall.
Tiafoes father, Frances Sr, had worked in the diamond mines of his native Sierra Leone. He had escaped a country torn apart by civil war and found his way to America. His wife, Alphina, struck it lucky when, in 1996, she entered the green card lottery, which randomly allocates a restricted number of American visas to people from countries with low immigration rates to the US. Millions applied and the odds against her had been monumental.
When Frances Sr and Alphina became parents to twins he found work on a construction crew which built the tennis centre that eventually became home. Frances Sr worked so hard the impressed owners offered him a permanent role as the janitor. He and Alphina felt it would be a better environment for the boys if they spent five nights of the week at the centre. The JTCC gave permission for Frances to convert a small spare office, with one small window, into a home for him and the twins. The boys spent the other two nights every week with their mother and her relatives in a one-bedroom apartment in Hyattsville.
Sleeping on folding tables in the office, Tiafoe says, was where my adventure started. I was thinking, Hows this story going to end? I saw tennis as the way to get me somewhere else. It was me thinking: Can you imagine if we do this right? It would be incredible. You cant make it up. I want to use the story now to inspire others. You dont have to be from the upper echelon to be great. If you want something in life, go get it.
When he lay in the dark, with these thoughts churning through him, he must have been strong to dream so big. I was always thinking, Theres got to be something more than this. Tiafoe says, half-smiling at a bittersweet memory.
Did he feel anger when he saw everything the rich kids had at the centre? I wouldnt say anger because you knew to be grateful for what you have. But it was tough because theyd look at what you wore and it was not great. My dad played a special role. He said: Look, you could have the last laugh. Youve got an amazing opportunity. Theyve got chauffeurs. Thats cool but is it theirs? No, they were born into it. You can earn yours.