As for tennis stories, the likely end of Serena Williams’ incredible career at last week’s US Open left everything but a sideshow of sorts.
On Monday night, however, Frances Tiafoe continued another unlikely success story with a magical performance to beat Rafa Nadal on the same pitch at Arthur Ashe Stadium where Serena waved an emotional farewell.
While the rise of Serena and her older sister Venus from the public courts of Compton in Los Angeles to world number one and, in Serena’s case, the greatest of all time is part of tennis folklore, Tiafoe’s journey is still unfolding.
After beating Nadal in four sets to reach the quarterfinals of his home Grand Slam for the first time, the 24-year-old turned to greet his parents, who were sitting in the stands.
And no wonder.
His father, Frances Snr, and mother, Alphina Kamara, fled the civil war in Sierra Leone and eventually settled in Maryland, where Frances Snr worked as a laborer at a construction company building a new tennis center.
Upon completion, he was offered a job as an on-site caretaker at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, and there his twin sons, Frances and Franklin, regularly stayed overnight to hit balls on the courts.
By the time he was five, Frances was already showing the ball-striking skills and athleticism that captivated the crowd at Arthur Ashe on Monday as Tiafoe scored the biggest win of his career to set up a clash with Andrey Rublev.
Tiafoe, whose mother worked nights as a nurse, spent most of his young life at the tennis center and won the prestigious Orange Bowl in 2013 at the age of 15 and was touted as the next big thing in American tennis.
Unlike the Williams sisters, whom he watched in awe as a kid, Tiafoe’s rise to the pro ranks wasn’t quite as spectacular and it took him a while to settle in.
A quarter-final run at the 2019 Australian Open, where he lost to Nadal, was his breakthrough at the Slams, but it’s only in recent years that Tiafoe has found the consistency to beat the big names on a regular basis.
After beating Nadal, he recalled the early days watching the Williams sisters and realizing what was possible for a young African American player with big dreams.
“Back when I was very young, watching Serena and Venus at the Grand Slams final, I thought how cool it would be to play Wimbledon, play Arthur Ashe and stuff like that,” Tiafoe told reporters. “I just had a great passion for the game. Not even mainly for me, but to do it for (my parents).”
Fourth-round runs at the US Open in 2020 and 2021 have now been surpassed and Tiafoe is in no mood to stop now, especially with A-list support from his sporting idols like NBA great LeBron James .
“Man, I lost it in the dressing room. Bro I was going insane,” he said of receiving a tweet from LeBron that read, “CONGRATULATIONS young king!!!”.
Tiafoe said his heart was beating at 1,000mph as he shook hands with 22-time Grand Slam champion Nadal and he expects another wild night when he takes on Rublev on Wednesday.
“Yeah, slams, crazy things can happen,” said the 22nd seed, who was bidding to become the first American to win the US Open since Andy Roddick in 2003.
“Especially here in New York. It’s going to be a fun ride.”
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