Amid the commotion of a trophy ceremony at the Sarasota Open, Frances Tiafoe Sr. waited patiently in the front of the VIP section at United Tennis Academy. The rest of the chairs around him emptied at James T. Driscoll Stadium Centre Court while his son, also named Frances Tiafoe, posed for photographs and was hounded by interview requests.
With his dreadlocks down almost all the way to his waist, Tiafoe Sr. took a moment to chat with anyone who passed, whether it was one of his son’s coaches or just a fan who wanted to congratulate the family. Eventually, Tiafoe Sr. was able to make it on to the court and briefly cross paths with his son. They clasped their right hands then draped their arms around each other.
More than any coach or trainer who has worked with Tiafoe, dad is the most important reason for his son’s success. Sunday was Tiafoe’s third ATP Challenger Tour title and certainly the most meaningful.
“It means a lot. He’s never seen me win a pro tournament,” Tiafoe said. “Since 9, 10 years old I’ve been telling him I was going to be pro and him seeing me win a pro event means a lot.”
The 19-year-old is on the brink of stardom and his week in Manatee County was proof, culminating with a commanding 6-3, 6-4 win against fellow American Tennys Sandgren. Tiafoe became something of a breakthrough crossover sensation when a strange disruption Tuesday led to a viral moment and a glimpse into Tiafoe’s infectious personality. He took down a former Top-10 player in the semifinals and is barrelling toward the top 50 himself with another 100 Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) ranking points. In all likelihood, his days on the Challenger Tour are numbered with another Grand Slam appearance on the horizon.
There’s a chance Tiafoe becomes a household name during the next few years, and the story of his unlikely journey to stardom will become well known. It begins with a bit of coincidence and his father’s work ethic.
Tiafoe is the child of Sierra Leonean immigrants who married and had children in Maryland. Tiafoe Sr. took a job as a construction worker at the JTCC, a tennis academy in College Park, Md., and was such a standout on the crew that the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) offered him a job as a custodian. His twin sons, Frances and Franklin, would play tennis during the day and when there was nowhere to sleep at night, they would sleep on the club’s massage tables. They grew up watching lessons and mimicking what they saw, eventually catching the coaches’ eyes and propelling Frances on his way to becoming one of the United States’ most promising prospects.
Tiafoe Sr. watched his son dominate the ITF Junior Circuit, but when the younger Tiafoe moved down to Boca Raton and started traveling the country for tournaments as a professional, Tiafoe Sr. couldn’t always tag along or didn’t choose to.
Whenever a tournament is within driving distance of Tiafoe Sr.’s new Fort Myers home, Junior pesters him to come. Tiafoe Sr. always starts by saying he’ll come for the quarterfinals.
“Quarters come, he’ll say, ‘Are you coming?’ I say, ‘Not until you get to the semis,’ ” Tiafoe Sr. said. “I was supposed to come yesterday to watch him play the semifinals, but I said, ‘I’m two hours away. You’ve got to be in the finals for me to watch.’ ”
He has a sense of humor, and a worldwide audience got to see how it rubbed off on his son Tuesday. Tiafoe’s first-round match against fellow American Mitchell Krueger was briefly halted when Tiafoe’s jaw dropped open at the sounds of sex coming from a neighboring condominium. A few minutes later, when the noise wouldn’t subside, Tiafoe shouted.
“It can’t be that good!” he yelled, an utterance which adorned T-shirts at the open for the rest of the week, and made him the subject of sports programs and late-night shows alike.
“I think he got that from me,” said Tiafoe Sr., a self-described prankster. “I told him he should be a comedian.”
To Tiafoe Sr., that little moment provided some proof that his son is succeeding.
“It’s not as much about winning,” he said. “Winning will come, but it’s entertainment. You’ve got to entertain people. Sometimes you don’t even have to be No. 1 in the world, but the whole crowd wants to see you play, which is amazing.”
It was the case this week and the crowd at United Tennis rallied around him for the final days of the tournament. He closed out Saturday night with a third-set tiebreaker win against Austria’s Jurgen Melzer, who peaked at No. 8 in the world, and then put on a show with his powerful serves and cheeky drop shots to beat Sandgren on Sunday. He entered the tournament as the No. 87 player in the world and should shoot up near No. 70 before he heads to the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger on Tuesday.
After another in-state trip — Tiafoe now trains with Robby Ginepri in Orlando — he’ll head to Europe for three tune-up tournaments and then the French Open.
There are segments of the world which already know about Tiafoe’s star trajectory. The rest could learn in the next few weeks.
“It’s amazing,” Tiafoe Sr. said. “Mentally, he’s great. He’s doing well.”