The game was suddenly tied. And then, what felt like seconds later, it was over. Frances Tiafoe had beaten me, 7-4. I was 24. He was 13.
“That’s hilarious,” Tiafoe said when I recounted the story to him in 2018 for an interview with Washington City Paper. “I don’t remember that at all. That’s actually hilarious. That’s good by me. I cleaned you up.”
Tiafoe said this, of course, with a smile. He may not remember wiping the floor with me, but others present that day do. To ensure my recollection was accurate, I called Bonnie Vona, the tournament director that week for the junior tennis tournament in Fredericksburg, Va. We both recall matches had finished for the day and that Tiafoe, while waiting for his coaches, walked around on the courts by himself with a racket in his hand.
I was working with Vona and the U.S. Tennis Association’s Mid-Atlantic section as part of its communications team, and while cleaning up for the day, two interns and I noticed Tiafoe practicing by himself. We asked him if he wanted to play. He instantly agreed.
“My biggest memories of Frances or thoughts when I think of Frances is that he would hang around and play just as long as he could find somebody to play him,” Vona said. “He wanted to be on the court playing.”
Tiafoe’s insatiable passion for tennis has always been on display. But now, the kid from Prince George’s County who was winning junior tournaments against players years older — and games against amateur hobby players a decade his senior — is showing it on the sport’s biggest stage and inspiring tennis fans everywhere with his unlikely path.
Tiafoe, 24, will play Friday night in the U.S. Open semifinals against third-seed Carlos Alcaraz. This marks the first time that an American man is in the U.S. Open semifinals since Andy Roddick in 2006. Tiafoe is also the first Black man from the United States to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since Arthur Ashe in 1972, and he did so by winning matches in a stadium named after the late Ashe.
“Every time I win, I just want to inspire a bunch of people to just know that you can — I mean, anything is possible,” Tiafoe told reporters Wednesday in his post-match news conference. “For me to do this and talk about how I feel about being in the U.S. Open from my come-up is crazy. At the end of the day I love that because of Frances Tiafoe, there is a lot of people of color playing tennis. That’s obviously a goal for me. That’s why I’m out here trying pretty hard.”
Tiafoe’s tennis story begins with his parents, both immigrants from a war-torn Sierra Leone. As the Post’s Liz Clarke wrote in 2014, Tiafoe’s father, Frances Tiafoe Sr., signed on as a day laborer to help construct the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., in 1999. Tiafoe Sr. took on multiple responsibilities as a maintenance worker, cleaning the complex during the day and maintaining the courts during the evening. He would sleep and shower at the complex. Tiafoe’s mother, Alphina Kamara, worked night shifts as a licensed practical nurse, and his parents’ schedules meant that Tiafoe and his twin brother, Franklin, would sometimes sleep in a spare room at the tennis facility, so Tiafoe Sr. could watch them.
The boys walked around the facility carrying tennis rackets almost as big as them, and Frances quickly developed a fascination with the game. He watched older kids train, whether it was in group or private lessons, and then mimicked those same skills against a wall, said Martin Blackman, the general manager for player development for the U.S. Tennis Association and the former director at JTCC. At 8, Tiafoe joined the center’s 10-and-under program, and the following year, he qualified for the Juniors Champions Program, then a year-round invitation-only program for tournament level players 12 and younger.
“The way Frances came to be in the program and his dad was on the construction crew that built the facility, I think that part is very unique and serendipitous,” Blackman said of Tiafoe’s journey. “But once Frances was in the program, the progression is what you would expect from someone with the skill and passion he has.”
Chris Vrabel has seen firsthand Tiafoe’s prodigious talent and drive. At a USTA Mid-Atlantic qualifying tournament for a national event, Tiafoe, then 13, beat Vrabel, who was three years older and one of the best junior players in the country.
“I definitely felt a lot of pressure playing him because I’m so much older,” said Vrabel, now a 27-year-old software engineer who lives in Seattle. “I was just impressed with his ability and composure to play at that age.”
That year, Vrabel stayed in the same house as Tiafoe during a travel tournament and discovered Tiafoe’s fun-loving personality. Tiafoe would make the other guys laugh by repeating random quotes from TV shows, Vrabel recalls, and he always seemed to be enjoying himself. The following year, the two played again in the final of the 18-and-under division at a local tournament. Vrabel went into the match extra motivated and beat Tiafoe, 6-3, 6-1. He remembers that Tiafoe became “pretty upset” with the lopsided loss, but just a few minutes later, Tiafoe got over his frustrations and started cracking jokes.
“I think everyone would agree he was the funniest guy around,” Vrabel said. “He was younger, a little more immature, but always fun to be around. He was constantly cracking jokes, saying things we didn’t really understand but was funny. He was always joking around. It was always a good laugh around him.”
The junior tennis friends exchanged a text or two last year, and Vrabel last saw Tiafoe at the Citi Open tournament in D.C. about six years ago. Vrabel, who played varsity tennis for Cornell University, isn’t surprised by Tiafoe’s success. He had the hunger and humility to improve every year, and a game style that seemed suited for the pros, Vrabel said, adding, “He was always someone who seemed destined to make it.”
When Tiafoe plays in the U.S. Open semifinal on Friday, Vrabel will be rooting for his friend and former junior tennis teammate and rival.
“He’s always easy to get along with, which makes it even more easy to root for him,” Vrabel said. Plus, thanks to Tiafoe, Vrabel now gets to tell his friends that he once beat a U.S. Open semifinalist. But don’t expect Vrabel to ask him for another match.
“I want to keep the 1-1 record against him,” he joked. “I don’t want to jeopardize it. … I’d be lucky to win a game, for sure.”