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THE STATE of concentration is absolute. One more point and, inevitably, he will have achieved a heroic feat he has been dreaming of since his first steps in the sport of tennis. He is serene; he has two match points in his favor. Indeed he had just lost one, but he had recently achieved a return that provoked a standing ovation from the public. The game seems under control for Frances Tiafoe (24, Maryland), but in front of him is Rafa Nadal, and it’s the fourth round of the US Open, so he knows he can’t leave the beast alive. He has to finish the job; the time is now: he returns the serve, closes the angles, goes up to the net, and smiles. Rafa has just left the ball in the net. Tiafoe is in the quarterfinals. The match of his life.
Four sets were enough for the American tennis player of the moment to subdue one of the best players in history and one of the tournament’s favorites. Even if he blames himself individually, Nadal honestly has no excuses for this match. He was outclassed in his best weapons: the physical and emotional facets. Because sure, Tiafoe does not have the refined technique of most players on the circuit; his swing is different; he has somewhat strange mechanics, but the talent and energy are there, and he is showing it match by match, with remarkable growth in recent years.
Not many remember his first big breakthrough in the elite. Three years ago, at the Australian Open, Tiafoe reached the quarterfinals and lost in straight sets to Nadal himself. He was 21 and the lack of experience in the big moments played against him. In an interview for The Guardian, he admitted that to go down in history and win tournaments, he needed to make winning matches at key moments, which is something obvious. Only the friction of competition would take him to the next level.
And now Tiafoe is up there. After defeating Nadal in the fourth round in a resounding tennis exhibition, the world No. 26 dispatched Andrey Rublev in straight sets to become the first American to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since Andy Roddick in 2006.
This is the moment Tiafoe fought so hard for, in a story of overcoming that not many know about. The American and his family did not have an easy life; to get here, they had to work hard.
The journey of Constant and Alphina
It all started with his parents in Sierra Leone, a country immersed in a terrible civil war, where his father, Constant, worked in diamond mines and was looking for ways to escape the nightmare of armed conflict in his country. So he left for the United States in 1993, searching for new opportunities.
Alphina is the other protagonist in this story, Frances Tiafoe’s mother. She, says The Guardian, “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.”
That’s how Constant and Alphina met in Hyattsville, Maryland, and in time had twins, Frances and their other son, Franklin, in 1998.
A year later, Alphina began working as a nurse and the twins’ father got a job as a builder on a crew doing the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. The center owners were so impressed with Constant’s hard work that they offered him the janitor job.
Mr. Frances was offered a free office, as he had asked for another job guarding the clay courts to work double shifts. As a result, his two children, Frances and Franklin, became interested in tennis and began playing tennis at the age of four.
Constant and Alphina decided that the best thing for their children was to spend five days a week at the center in a spare office that the center’s owners provided. Both Frances and her brother slept on the floor and on narrow folding tables in their dad’s small office for a long time.
“Sleeping on folding tables in the office, “Frances Tiafoe told The Guardian, “was where my adventure started. I was thinking, ‘How’s 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 can’t make it up.’ I want to use the story now to inspire others. You don’t have to be from the upper echelon to be great. If you want something in life, go get it.”
There was no money to pay the expensive center fees, so Frances began practicing alone, with disposable rackets, hitting the ball against the wall repeatedly. She would watch the kids who attended the center practice, moving and improving their mechanics. His learning, at least in his early days, before his father got him a spot at the center, was by pure instinct and imitation, with no one to correct him or help him perfect his shot mechanics.
In fact, he got his first professional racket at the age of 12, when they started sponsoring him for his potential career.
Misha Kouznetsov, Tiafoe’s first coach, became interested in Frances’ athletic qualities when he was eight years old because of his strong shot and work ethic. Kouznetsov was a turning point in the young tennis player’s life, as he agreed to train him full time and paid for Tiafoe to train in junior tournaments, where he gained competitive exposure.
Tiafoe’s elite training was completed when the young American of Sierra Leonean origin won the prestigious Orange Bowl at 15, the youngest ever to do so. The future looked big for young Frances and his family.
Tiafoe seeks the top
At 17, the Maryland native debuted in the main draw at Roland Garros, the youngest American to do so since Pete Sampras and Michael Chang in 1989. He enjoyed a significant rise in his beginnings as a professional, reaching his peak in 2019 at the Australian Open, but then fit a bad streak falling in various tournaments in the first round and losing to higher-level opponents without putting up too much resistance and dropping below the top-80 of the ranking. A tragedy.
Then came the pandemic, a historical event that made Tiafoe reflect and change his mentality; after the pandemic, sports stopped, came back stronger, and recharged, achieving great sporting triumphs. Especially in this US Open, where the American has become a sensation and pride for the country.
Frances Tiafoe’s next challenge is not simple: to reach the US Open final and try to win it. To do so, he will have to beat the sensational Carlos Alcaraz, the great promise of world tennis, who is having a fantastic tournament. Will this young American of African roots be able to keep the trophy at home? We will see. But there is no doubt: Tiafoe’s story is one of the best in the circuit, and if not now, tennis will give him another rematch because resilience is the main characteristic of this athlete.
Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón is a journalist at El American specializing in the areas of American politics and media analysis // Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón es periodista de El American especializado en las áreas de política americana y análisis de medios de comunicación.
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