Frances Tiafoe’s parents left war-torn Sierra Leone for a better life in the United States. His mother, Alphina, was a nurse and often worked two jobs. Frances Sr. became a day laborer on a crew building the Junior Tennis Champions Center, a training complex and school in College Park, Md. His diligence won him a full-time place as the center’s custodian.
With that job came a spare room where he could nap between shifts. He’d bring his twin sons, Frances and Franklin, to sleep there when Alphina worked nights. Both boys played tennis because they were surrounded by it, but young Frances lived and breathed it from the beginning.
It’s good to be reminded that the American dream isn’t a faded myth. It’s alive and well and will be represented in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open thanks to young Frances, now 24. His commanding 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 upset of 22-time Grand Slam singles champion and No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal on Monday was the high point of the family’s hopes, and there could be even better to come.
The end of the reign of Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic has long been anticipated, but they’ve hung on past 35 — past 40 for Federer, who plans to return next month after knee surgery. With this win Tiafoe moved toward the front of the line of would-be dragon slayers.
“For a while there, I was like, geez. You see all these young guys get Rafa, Fed, Novak. Am I ever going to be able to say I beat one of them? Today I was like, no, I’m going to do that,” he said.
“So now, it’s something to tell the kids, the grandkids, Yeah, I beat Rafa. Hopefully I never play him again, but hope I end with a win,” he added, with a smile.
When Nadal netted a backhand to end it, Tiafoe covered his face with his hands in disbelief. “I felt like the world stopped,” he said, adding he was too much in shock to recall what he said to Nadal at the net.
He soon looked to his family, sitting in his player’s box. He did this for them, for their sacrifices and belief. The most he had hoped to get out of tennis was a scholarship, because the family couldn’t have afforded to send him to college. Now, he’s the only American left in the men’s field and a two-time Grand Slam event quarterfinalist, following his 2019 run in Australia.
“Us being around tennis was kind of get us getting out of our neighborhood,” he said. “It wasn’t anything supposed to be like this.”
Watching Serena and Venus Williams compete in major finals inspired him to imagine following them to Wimbledon’s hallowed Centre Court and raucous Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows. He made it in New York and added a flourish by wearing down Nadal, who’s legendary for his toughness.
Nadal, winner of this year’s Australian and French Opens and a semifinalist at Wimbledon before a torn abdominal muscle forced him to withdraw, had a 22-match winning streak in Grand Slam events. He hadn’t lost a set in two previous meetings with Tiafoe. Those were obliterated by Tiafoe’s 18 aces, 49 winners, and boundless energy.
“I played a bad match and he played a good match. At the end that’s it, no?” Nadal said of what made the difference. “I was not able to hold a high level of tennis for a long time. I was not enough quick on my movements. He was able to take the ball too many times very early, so I was not able to push him back.
“Tennis is a sport of position a lot of times, no? If not, you need to be very, very quick and very young. I am not in that moment anymore.”
Their first set went on serve until Nadal over-hit a backhand and a forehand to give Tiafoe the break in the seventh game. Tiafoe won the set on his third chance. The second set went according to serve until the 10th game, which ended with one of Tiafoe’s four double faults.
Tickling the lines, Tiafoe fired an ace to close out the third set and gestured to the crowd for more cheers. Fans initially seemed torn between patriotically cheering for Tiafoe or supporting longtime favorite Nadal, but Tiafoe won them over.
“It was totally packed. The crowd was insane,” said Tiafoe, who next will face No. 9 seed Andrey Rublev. “I wouldn’t probably want to beat Rafa anywhere else. Maybe Centre Court Wimbledon. I’ve never played on Centre Court Wimbledon. Those two are the two pinnacles of tennis, these two Slams.”
Last week, Tiafoe said he enjoyed being under the radar. He’s not invisible anymore. Among the congratulations he received on social media was a tweet from Lakers star LeBron James. “CONGRATS YOUNG KING!!! You earned it!” James said. Tiafoe loved that one.
“Man, I was losing it in the locker room. Bro, I was going crazy,” he said, smiling. “Yeah, I mean, that’s my guy. So to see him post that, I was like, ‘Do I retweet it as soon as he sent it?’ I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to be cool and act like I didn’t see it and then retweet it three hours later.’”
Tiafoe is so cool he’s hot.
Two other Americans had mixed results in fourth-round singles matches on Monday. No. 8 women’s seed Jessica Pegula routed Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 6-2, to set up a quarterfinal against No. 1 Iga Swiatek of Poland, but Danielle Collins was stopped by Aryna Sabalenka, who came back for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. Pegula and Coco Gauff are the only American women in the final eight.
No American man has won a Slam singles title since Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open. Tiafoe is carrying the flag here, an American dream in tennis shoes.