One year ago, Frances Tiafoe headed to the U.S. Open, beloved within the tennis world but a relative unknown outside it. He emerged as the first American man to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since 2006, and the first Black American man since Arthur Ashe.
Tiafoe did it by upsetting the great Rafael Nadal in an emotional, magnetic match in, as a colleague put it at the time, “a stadium packed to the rafters with the sound bellowing off the roof after nearly every point.” When he eventually lost in the semis to Carlos Alcaraz in a five-set banger, Michelle Obama asked to see him afterward, to thank him and console him. And the national media rushed to tell his story — an unusual one in a predominantly white, wealthy sport.
Heading into this year’s Open, Tiafoe is the world No. 10. No longer the underdog, he is now contending with the burden and blessing of expectations and the distractions of sports celebrity. I sat down with him one week before the Open, at the Rock Creek Tennis Center in Washington, D.C., not far from where he grew up. We talked about whether his story really represents “the American dream,” if he’s looking forward to Novak Djokovic’s retirement, and … pickleball. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
I am wondering what it’s like at this moment in your career. You’re being profiled in magazines. I just saw you in Vanity Fair. You’ve got N.B.A. stars in your box. It’s got to be pretty wild.
Yeah, I talk about it all the time. That saying that your life can change overnight is 100 percent true. After I beat Rafa Nadal at last year’s Open, I felt like I was looked at totally different. You don’t realize what you’re doing, how crazy it is, while you’re doing it because you’re doing it. I think afterward, going home and buying little things at CVS and ladies are like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this is you.” It’s been crazy. It’s definitely not meant for everybody. It’s definitely a life shift.
Can you tell me a little bit about that? I mean, very few people will have that experience.
You need to really have solid people around you. Everybody says that but don’t really live by it. A lot of people are going to want to take your time. All of a sudden, everyone wants to be your best friend. The famous guy wants to hang out, and he can do it at that time, but you maybe need to not do that. And I think the biggest thing for me is learning to say no. I still need to do a much better job of that. I’ve seen it eat a lot of people up. It gets to people’s heads.
What have you said no to that you wanted to do?
Even little things, like an appearance with one of my new brand partners that would have been a cool sit-down with Matt Damon, who I’m a big fan of. But I can’t do it, can’t go. I got to play a tournament. And it’s like, ahhh.
You know, like, going on “The Shop” with LeBron — stuff that I’ve wanted to do, but scheduling just hasn’t quite worked out. And then obviously parties. You’ll get invited, but you probably should play a tournament. The reason people know you? You should probably stay on that.
When you say you’ve seen other people get pulled off their path —
People who are so hot for a second and then you just don’t hear about. And I think that’s the difference between one-hit wonders and people with longevity. It’s just that they’re so obsessed with what they’re doing and what got them to a certain place.
I want to talk a little about your back story. You’re the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone. When you were little, your father literally helped build an elite tennis center in College Park, Md., as a construction worker. And then he got a job there as its custodian. And you actually lived there part time with your dad and your twin brother. And you started training there at the age of 5, which is incredible.
These details of your life are the headline of most articles about you. Does it feel like people get your story right? Are there things that you feel like people don’t understand when they talk about the way you came up?
I feel like people do 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 really was a big long shot, a huge long shot. And it just goes to show that being great at something is just having a level of obsession, and that’s what I had. I just hope it inspires a lot of people, honestly.
You talked about how extraordinary your story is. And I guess there’s a couple of ways that you can 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 10 tennis players in the whole world. But I think there’s another version, which is that without an incredible amount of luck, you could have been just as talented, you could have been just as driven as you are, and yet never have become a professional tennis player.
How do you think about the balance between those two versions — that your story shows both the incredible opportunities in America, but also that there are these inequalities that mean that it’s much harder for someone like you to be able to get to where you are?
Ironically, I look at it more as the second version.
Really? So then what does your story say about why there aren’t more Tiafoes?
Well, it’s the lack of access, right? The biggest thing with the game of tennis is that it’s so hard to just start to play. Like very, very tough for people in low-income areas to just play the game of tennis. Shoes, rackets, clothes, stringing, court time. If it’s cold and you play inside, you pay for the court. You pay for coaching. I mean, if I’m a young kid, why wouldn’t I just go and play basketball, where I need three other guys to play two-on-two and a hoop? It’s a no-brainer.
I think that’s the crazy thing. I imagine if I wasn’t, as you said, wasn’t in that situation —
That your dad got the job at this place that allowed you to have the opportunity to be seen and to play.
Think about how many people, if they were in my situation, could be doing what I’m doing. People that come from similar backgrounds as me, could do something special. That’s what I think about. Why aren’t more people lucky enough to be in that position?
There have barely been any elite Black American male tennis players. How do you diagnose that problem?
That’s why I look at my story that way. I mean, 50 years until an African American male made a semifinal of the U.S. Open? Fifty years. You’re telling me in 50 years a Black male can’t be in the semifinal of the U.S. Open?
Granted, it was a great accomplishment for me! But I don’t want to wait another 50.
I want to ask you about a separate issue, or maybe you think it’s connected. But there’s a real question about why American male players in general have struggled so much in the past two decades. An American man hasn’t won a Grand Slam since 2003. And until your run last year, there really haven’t been any U.S. stars on the men’s side in the way there were before. Agassi and Sampras, McEnroe, Connors. Why do you think American men in general have had such a hard time?
That’s always a funny question. I’ve been dealing with it for a long time.
I think it is a bit of a separate issue from what we were just speaking about. My rebuttal to it is always: It doesn’t really matter where your flag is from. Essentially it was four guys winning Grand Slams for a decade. One of the guys is still going at it, however old he is. He doesn’t seem like he’s stopping.
He’s 36. Djokovic.
Exactly. So I don’t think that’s really a flag issue. I think that’s just an era issue. I mean, the best decade of tennis ever.
But we’re at this changing-of-the-guard moment. Roger Federer retired last year. Nadal, who you beat last year at the U.S. Open, is having a tough season with injuries. He’s also talked about retiring. Djokovic is still very much in the mix, but he is indeed 36 years old. Are you secretly glad these guys are winding down?
Yes and no. My goal when I was younger, I wanted to beat one of those guys in the highest-level event. You want to be the best, so you’ve got to beat the best. So I’m not like, Oh, man, I can’t wait for these guys to stop. I think that’s a bad mentality. I think it’s I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to beat these guys.
I mean, I’m playing Rafa last year. I should have more legs than he has. Should! And it motivates me. Because even if Novak retires, you have new guys. Carlos Alcaraz is very good. There’s always going to be someone who you’re going to have to beat.
I was watching this conversation you had with Chris Eubanks and Ben Shelton, two other young Black American players. And you said, “We’re going to be the reason why the game changes.” What did you mean by that?
I just think diversity in sports, right? You bring a whole different demographic to the game. It’s history, and you’re watching it live. It’s the reason why Chris Eubanks’s run at Wimbledon was so big. It’s iconic stuff in a predominantly white sport. So I think we have a bit of a different impact. You start seeing more people of color in the stadium, paying that hard-earned money to come watch because it’s history, it’s different.
How does that make you feel, that more people are using their hard-earned money to come to the stands? People of color that you’re bringing into the sport?
It means everything to me. It means everything to me, but at the same time it’s like, damn, you feel the responsibility to perform, to be your best self for them.
It’s interesting. You’ve just discussed this tension, which is feeling really great to be able to inspire people, but also feeling like it’s a burden. And I think most people of color who are successful would say that it’s really difficult to be the first and the only. Because there is this tension. Do you feel like it pushes you farther, or do you feel like it sometimes can weigh you down?
It’s a great question. First off, yeah, as you achieve it, you definitely think about that. I don’t want to be the first and only, as I said earlier. But I think it inspires me, man. It really does. It makes me want to have longevity with this thing at a high level. Because you think about Serena and Venus. That’s why you create a Sloane Stephens winning a Grand Slam. That’s why you create a Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka. And that’s the position I want to be in, right?
But the job doesn’t end until you do the ultimate goal, and that’s to win a Grand Slam.
That’s your goal right now? That’s the thing?
That’s the only thing that matters, to be fair. If I win a Grand Slam, there’s nothing anyone could say or ask of me after that.
So you’ve been pretty vocal about how you think tennis should modernize and bring in new fans. You’ve said you’d like to see the sport borrow from basketball and be more relaxed when it comes to fan behavior. Why do you think that would be a good thing?
People are like, oh, that’s not this game, that’s not tennis. Well, the question was how do we bring in younger fans? If you go to a soccer game, you go to a football game, a baseball game, you’re not quiet, are you?
It’s entertainment. Obviously with tennis you need a little bit more structure. But for example, in between games, when people are standing on top of the stadium and ask the usher, “Well, when can I come down? I’m paying for tickets and I can’t even come and go as I please?”
I don’t want to change the whole way of it, but within reason. I think a lot more young people would be like, OK, this is cool. You know, music playing more constantly, maybe in between points or in high-pressure moments.
You think about the U.S. Open atmosphere, and they’re doing it anyway. Like, I’m playing in that stadium, it’s rockin’. People are drunk out of their minds, they’re just screaming whenever they want. You can’t control the environment anyway, so you might as well let it rock.
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 that I like. I don’t think it’s a great sport. But from the business side, I love it.
I don’t think it takes very much skill. I go to Florida and I see a lot of older people playing and joking with the kids and having fun, but as far as creating all these leagues and tournaments and pro events, I just feel like tennis players who couldn’t quite do it out here are trying to make something out there.
And they’re closing down tennis courts in order to make pickleball courts.
For that sport to have an effect on the game of tennis, it’s ridiculous to me.
Thank you for indulging me. To get back to your generation: There’s a lot of buzz around Carlos Alcaraz. He’s 20, he’s won two Slams, and it looks like he’s just getting started. Are you worried he’s a player who’s becoming the guy to beat?
No, it’s good! It’s good. He’s good. He’s good for the game. Hell of a player. He is going to be special. He’s going to be a guy that’s going to push me to always want more and be at my best, because if I want to achieve anything special, I got to go through him. Once Novak leaves, he’s the guy to beat.
That brings me to where you are right now. You’re world No. 10. You’ve won a couple of tournaments this year, but you’ve also been knocked out early in others, including a heartbreaker at Wimbledon. How do you evaluate your overall performance this year?
I think I’ve had a good year. I’ve won 30-something matches. I’ve won a couple titles. I’m probably the most consistent I’ve been this year as far as week to week. But I’d much rather take more L’s, more losses, with a deeper run in a Slam. So we got one more shot. And obviously I want to go deep and put myself in title contention.
How are you preparing for that?
I know what I want to do. I know I want to win the event. It’s a matter of beating the guys you’re supposed to beat. But it is what it is. I’m 25. It doesn’t have to be right now.
I want to ask you a little bit about the specifics of your game. You changed coaches. You reworked your technique, particularly your forehand. I watched the Netflix “Break Point” episode — that’s the documentary series about the tennis tour — and there was a lot of talk about your focus, about trying to up your consistency. So when you think about how your game has changed, do you think the shift has been more mental or more physical?
The physical side has played a part. I’ve gotten much more fit, much more lean in the last couple years. But I think the mental side is the biggest thing. I’ve just made a choice. I made a choice that I’m committing to the game. I made a choice that I’m going to be more professional. I made a choice that I’m going to sacrifice a bit more of my outside tennis activities. Pick your moments of whatever pleasure — trying to just put tennis as the No. 1 priority.
So saying no to LeBron.
Was there a moment when you made that choice?
Yes. Going into the pandemic, I was not in a good place. Playing horribly. I was just enjoying life and got really complacent and it showed in my game a lot. It was the first time I really went through adversity as it pertains to the game of tennis. Losing a lot of matches and I didn’t really know how to handle it. So that was very tough.
And then, just having a conversation with my boys, looking at the rankings, I’m like, dude, these guys ahead of me, they’re not better than me. Like, this is not reality. This can’t be my reality. And then from that point, I hired coaches. A lot of my team is new. My fitness coach travels with me much more. I started just slowly making choices. Being coachable. Stop trying to act like I know everything. Just slowly break old habits, which is very tough. It’s been a long process, but it’s been good. These last three years have been good. I’ve changed a lot.
I want to take you back to last year’s U.S. Open. Because, you know, losing is terrible for everyone, but it feels like it hits you particularly hard. In your postmatch interview after you lost in the semifinals, even though it was this incredible moment, you said, and I’m quoting here, “I feel like I let you guys down.” Who did you feel like you let down?
The country. I’ve never felt that much weight. Never felt that much energy. I checked into my hotel three weeks prior to that match. It was kind of like, whatever, nobody was really bothering me. Then at the end, I have security outside my door, people are going crazy, I’m all over New York, can’t go anywhere, everyone’s coming to the match.
And I really believed I could do it. After I beat Rafa, after I backed up that win and I gave everything I had. You know, it just wasn’t good enough. And at that particular moment, I genuinely felt that way. I felt like I let those guys down. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself, but I was letting them know that I want to come back and finish the job. It was an emotional moment. It was very tough. No competitor wants to feel like they fell short.
And now on the cusp of this year’s Open —
I feel like I’m in a pretty good place. Going in, momentum-wise, it hasn’t been a great couple of weeks. But honestly, no matter how I’ve played going in, I always feel like I can do something special in New York. That crowd behind me. There’s something about people getting behind you and wanting it more than you almost do. You feel like you don’t have a choice but to give everything.