12:23 AM GMT January 21, 2019
Frances Tiafoe is not your typical tennis player. Growing up, his father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, was a janitor at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland. Tiafoe and his brother, Franklin, spent much of their time at the facility as children, sometimes even sleeping there in a small office that their father converted into his apartment.
Tiafoe vowed to become great at tennis, not just for the sake of being a fantastic player, but to make a difference for his family. In March 2017 the American bought a house for his mother in Maryland, and he got his father an apartment in Orlando, Florida, where Tiafoe trains.
On Sunday, the #NextGenATP American defeated 2017 Nitto ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov to reach the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. That victory guarantees him at least $460,000. It’s safe to say he has come a long way.
“At the beginning, that was just my goal as a kid,” Tiafoe said of his desire to take care of his family. “It's crazy, man. Obviously if you guys know anything about me, [my] story in tennis, I obviously wasn't a normal tennis story. The beginning of my career, I was playing for them, trying to do everything for my family. Obviously now I put them in a great place. Now I'm trying to do it for me.”
Tiafoe broke through in a major way in 2018. The Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier had never reached a tour-level quarter-final before last year, but he won his maiden ATP Tour title at the Delray Beach Open and also made the final in Estoril. So heading into 2019, Tiafoe had a message for coach Zack Evenden and a couple of other members of his team.
“I'm going to pop off. No reason why I can't do these things,” Tiafoe said. “I didn't think it was going to happen right away. This is unbelievable.”
Tiafoe is the youngest American to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final since former World No. 1 Andy Roddick did so at Wimbledon in 2003. He is also the youngest player from his country to advance to the last eight in Melbourne since Roddick in 2003. Thanks to Tiafoe and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who upset six-time champion Roger Federer, it is the first time since the 2009 US Open (Cilic & Del Potro) that two 21-and-under players are into the last eight of a major. If fourth seed Alexander Zverev beats Milos Raonic on Monday, it’ll be the first time three players of that age broke through to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open since 1997 (Costa, Moya, Rios).
Tiafoe has gained plenty of attention with not just his top-tier play, but his post-match celebrations at this event, mimicking moves by basketball superstar LeBron James. James even commented on an ESPN Instagram post comparing the two athletes’ celebrations with his approval.
“This is crazy. Saw LeBron commenting on that ESPN thing, talking about ‘The Silencer’. My phone is blowing up. I can barely use it,” Tiafoe said. “Clearly he knows who I am now… That's just crazy.”
While it is plenty exciting now, there were moments in Tiafoe’s match against Dimitrov when it appeared the American was in trouble, even after leading by two sets. The World No. 39, who will crack the Top 30 for the first time on 28 January regardless of his results the rest of the tournament, let slip a 4-2 lead in the third set. In the fourth set, it seemed Dimitrov was by far the fresher player, and the Bulgarian earned three break points deep in the set.
But Tiafoe battled, scratching and clawing his way through rallies to hang onto his serve and then earn a break of his own before serving out the match. He even tried something he isn’t a fan of to try to find a burst of energy.
“I was trying to stay alive. I was downing pickle juice, having that like Kool-Aid, just trying to get that done,” Tiafoe said. “I'm talking straight up, straight up. Just downing it. Tasted terrible.”
However terrible it tasted, Tiafoe’s efforts earned him the biggest win of his career. And now, he will face 2009 champion Rafael Nadal for a spot in the semi-finals.
“I'm so excited to play Rafa. We're going to have some fun, going to have some long rallies,” Tiafoe said. “Playing arguably one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Just [want to] have some fun out there.”
To make the situation even better for Tiafoe, the Dimitrov win came on his 21st birthday. Before stepping on court, Tiafoe posted a picture on Instagram of him and his brother when they were children in Sierra Leone, where their father sent them when he felt his sons were getting spoiled.
“He said, ‘You guys don't even understand. You guys [have] got American passports, got the opportunity to do something great. Go and do it’,” Tiafoe said.
It’s safe to say Tiafoe has done just that.