Frances Tiafoe will never forget his 21st birthday. After the biggest victory of his career—upsetting Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov at January’s Australian Open to make his first Grand Slam quarterfinal—an emotional Tiafoe strutted shirtless across the court, flexing his muscles and letting out a primal, celebratory yell as the 10,000-person crowd launched into “Happy Birthday.” Though his run in Melbourne would ultimately conclude with a swift loss to Rafael Nadal, the tournament was a breakthrough. Yet another sign, as he’d tag his gratitude-filled Instagram post, of #bigfoeonthecomeup.
“That was one hell of a week and a half,” Tiafoe recalls a month later, laughing over the phone from Acapulco, in the midst of the Mexican Open, a tune-up tournament intended to help him gear up for this summer’s French Open. “Hopefully, every year I end up playing on my birthday and winning.”
Tennis has been a part of Tiafoe’s life for as long as he can remember, but his introduction to the sport was born of chance. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from civil war–torn Sierra Leone in the 1990s and met in Maryland. It was there, in the D.C. suburb of College Park, that his father, Frances Sr., got a job on the construction crew of the prestigious Junior Tennis Champions Center, and later became the facility’s maintenance man. Frances and his twin brother, Franklin (who played tennis for Salisbury University in Maryland), essentially lived at the center, sleeping in the spare office their father used as a temporary apartment while their mother worked night shifts as a nurse. Starting at age 5, they were taking lessons with the center’s coaches and playing alongside its blue-blooded recruits.
“I was about 10 or 11, and I made a decision that this is what I wanted to do as a career,” Tiafoe says. “If you want to be great, you can go ahead and do it. As a singles player, it’s just you and another guy competing; it’s a lot like boxing. I fell in love with that.”
Tiafoe’s aggressive groundstrokes and on-court charm made him a name in tennis circles as a young teenager, and at 15, his victory in the Orange Bowl junior tournament—a title claimed by John McEnroe and Andy Roddick as teens—drew even more buzz. At 17, he made his Grand Slam debut in the French Open, and turned pro shortly thereafter. He won his first ATP title at the Delray Beach Open in 2018 and, thanks to his powerful, no-frills serve and topspin-heavy forehand, has moved into the Top 40 of the ATP rankings, behind just one other American, John Isner. “I would certainly buy stock in him right now,’’ Isner said of Tiafoe back in 2016, after eking out a win against the then-18-year-old at the first round of the U.S. Open.
Given Tiafoe’s attack-minded playing style, inspiring backstory, and endearing swagger (he has a penchant for mimicking LeBron James’s signature “Silencer” celebration), he could become the first bona fide star American men’s tennis has seen since the early aughts—the twilight years of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and the last time an American man won a Grand Slam tournament (Andy Roddick’s 2003 triumph at the U.S. Open). “It’s nice that people think I’m going to be that guy,” says Tiafoe, who at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds has the agility and speed of a much smaller player. “I’ve been getting more and more comfortable every year on the tour. I think I belong now, and that’s making a difference.”
After the French Open, which runs from late May to early June, Tiafoe’s next big challenge comes in July, at Wimbledon, where he’s looking to build on his successful 2019 by getting past the third round. His story is a thrilling one to root for: Will the son of American immigrants, who grew up in the privileged world of elite tennis only to soar beyond it, shake up the field against the staid, strawberries-and-cream backdrop of the All-England Club?
The upstart appreciates the pageantry, but he isn’t intimidated by it. “Being able to stick to all their rules for so many years is quite impressive,” Tiafoe says. “It’s the most prestigious event we have. It’s box office. I just hope I can go deeper and play on Centre Court.” Meanwhile, he remains thankful for his parents’ sacrifice—he recently bought them a house in Beltsville, Maryland—and the unique upbringing that gave him a chance to get on the court in the first place.
“My parents are really why I play,” he says. “All the other stuff is quite irrelevant to me. I tell them all the time, me going this far and setting [them] up for living, that means a lot to me. That’s been my passion and my drive as a young’un coming up. But I’ve done what I needed to do for them. Now, I can go and do what I love for myself.”