‘I guess sex sells’: An oral history of a disruption at the Sarasota Open

Frances Tiafoe serves as he faces off against Henri Laaksonen in the quarter finals of the Sarasota Open tennis tournament on Friday evening at the United Tennis Academy in Bradenton.
Frances Tiafoe serves as he faces off against Henri Laaksonen in the quarter finals of the Sarasota Open tennis tournament on Friday evening at the United Tennis Academy in Bradenton.

Love in tennis means nothing. It means you haven’t scored.

On Tuesday at the Sarasota Open, love quickly took on another meaning. Frances Tiafoe, the tournament’s No. 3 seed and one of the biggest young stars in tennis, rifled a shot into the net. The chair umpire called out the score as Mitchell Krueger took a lead in the game. “Love-15.”

There’s a good chance that Tiafoe is a megastar one day. He’s the youngest player ranked in the Association of Tennis Professionals’ top 100 and gave Roger Federer a tough match earlier this year as a 19-year-old. The three minutes that followed would make Tiafoe mainstream famous in a way he never could have expected.


“Once again, Krueger has Tiafoe in a deficit situation,” Mike Cation, the ATP Challenger Tour’s play-by-play announcer said. Tiafoe walked back to the baseline and started to stretch. He bounced the ball with his racket a few times and then his mouth and eyes opened wide. He turned to the crowd with a look caught somewhere between confusion, embarrassment and amused.

Tiafoe: I was the closest to it, I guess, and I was going to the towel and I was like, Holy f---. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, Wow.

Cation: The initial reaction honestly was I was just looking at the crowd because I had headphones on, so I could hear it, but I couldn’t actually place it. So I’m looking at the crowd and they’re all looking around and everybody’s pretty startled at what they’re hearing, so I’m thinking, OK, it’s got to be on somebody’s phone and that’s my initial thought is, OK, just reach into your pocket, turn it off, please. Just get rid of it.

Ray Collins, public address announcer: When I first heard it, I thought it was some kids playing a prank, and the more I listened I thought, Prank or not, this is some very graphic stuff wafting across the fence, and it was loud and it could not be ignored. And then I realized it wasn’t kids based on the tone of the woman’s voice.

Nervous laughs cascaded through the crowd. Parents clasped hands over children’s ears. The players played on and Cation talked the viewing audience at home through his thought process. Well, that is the most bizarre situation,” he said. “I don’t know how to put this, folks, but somebody’s phone is going off in the stands ... and it was an adult video.” William Saba is the fan who probably had the closest seat to the neighboring condominiums, way at the end of the bar in the VIP section.

Saba: I promise you, I was the first one who knew what was happening. ... I could see shadows.

Collins: It was like cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing among a family-friendly event. ... It took me a moment to calibrate.

Tony Driscoll, tournament director: Normally we’d go and ask them to stop. ... That’s not something you can necessarily stop, and you don’t necessarily want to.

The first real acknowledgment from the players came from Krueger. Between points, he walks to his bag and grabs a ball. He rockets a forehand up toward the condominium.

Jeff Russell, United Tennis co-owner: I saw him fire a ball up and I thought he was hitting geese. That was when I walked out, right before Krueger fired the ball up there and I looked up and I’m like, It must be a goose or something making those noises because I heard some noises.

Cation: I’m like, Oh my God. It’s still going, it is not somebody’s phone; it’s from the apartment.

Driscoll: The players reacted very lightheartedly.

Russell: I thought that it had to be a joke. It’s got to be somebody screwing around with the tournament or something, but if you’re going to do it as a joke, you do it for 20 seconds or 30, everybody goes, Ha-ha, funny, funny. This went on for like three minutes or something. It went on for just an extraordinary amount of time.

Saba: There was entertainment here, and there was entertainment there. I had the best seat in the house.

Tiafoe ties the score at 15-15 when Krueger mishits a serve. “That is an all-timer,” Cation says.

Russell: I think there’s only eight units in the condos to our south, and there’s only 10 units in the condos to our north, and one is mine. And we have a really good relationship with both. We’re neighbors. We get along really well. We’re always really respectful of the noise level late at night, and they’re always really respectful of us.

Driscoll: We met with all the associations, but that’s not something you can necessarily stop.

Russell: We’re very friendly with the president of the board of condos. We spoke to him, and he was certain that it was a one-time deal.

Tiafoe wins another point after a decent length rally. Cation chimes in again. “I still hear it,” he says. “It’s still going on.” Tiafoe still has the same look on his face he did a few minutes earlier. He finally has to turn and shout.

Tiafoe, on the court: It can’t be that good!

Cation: Frances is about as perfect of a person as you could have imagined for that particular situation because he’s always having fun, except for when he’s losing, but he’s always just having fun and really engaged and it’s just perfect.

Tiafoe: I was dying laughing, of course, and then I had to say what I had to say.

Collins: When Frances referenced it, we all knew we could acknowledge it.

Cation: In tennis circles, he’s pretty well known. Tennis people have known him, but now the mainstream people have seen him, so I think that’s the best part. Frances Tiafoe is maybe a name people might actually know.

Driscoll: I think it was a perfect storm.

Tiafoe: It’s good that people got me on the humor side because I want them to get me on that a lot. Because I think I’m a pretty laid back guy.

Tiafoe’s call finally silences them. “At least somebody is having a good night,” Cation says on a broadcast which has now been seen millions of times. Basically every late-night show referenced the incident. Blogs with nothing to do with sports carried the video. Fine Designs, the custom-shirt company hired by the open, had apparel ready two days later with Tiafoe’s quote.

Driscoll: We’ve had a lot of requests from all over the world.

Cation: They always say any publicity is good publicity. We’re just happy people are actually paying attention.

Paul Stefoglo, Fine Designs: I’ve been joking with Tony, “How much did you have to pay those people?”

Driscoll: I think we had six million hits to our website, 1.5 million to the YouTube video.

Russell: Initially I thought it was going to be a negative thing, but it’s turned out to be a positive thing for the tournament, a positive thing for the club. I guess sex sells.

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2