Frances Tiafoe spoke of his pride at inspiring young kids of color as he prepares for another tilt at glory at the US Open.
‘I measure success in how many people you bless,’ said the American who reached a first Grand Slam semifinal at last year’s tournament.
The 25-year-old, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, used to sleep at the tennis center where his father worked as a janitor.
Now ranked inside the world’s top 10, he is spearheading a promising era of US tennis. And ahead of his home Slam, Tiafoe opened up on how he is treated by young people around the country.
‘It’s crazy – I go around at some tournaments, even back home practicing, and these little kids come up crying: “We’ve been waiting to meet you. I want to be just like you. You’re the reason I started the game…”’ he explains.
Frances Tiafoe is raring to go in New York again for this year’s US Open, starting next week
Tiafoe is looking to improve on his inspirational run to the semis in last year’s competition
‘That is stuff that means a lot… kids see life in me. They see the game is cool to play because of me. It’s a cool place to be in. It’s cool to feel like you’re inspiring people.’
He added: ‘It holds a lot of weight. A lot of kids want to play the game now because of me. I feel that. It’s definitely a big responsibility, definitely a place you want to be in, a place you want to continue to grow and have people want to play the game.’
Tiafoe’s wider role was reinforced last year, when he became the first black US man to reach a US Open semifinal since Arthur Ashe in 1972.
‘How the country was reacting to me going for that run – I think it helps because it’s not a normal face you see doing that every day here at the US Open,’ said Tiafoe, who was beaten by eventual winner Carlos Alcaraz.
It is now 20 years since Andy Roddick triumphed here in New York. That remains the last time an American man has won a major.
‘I don’t want to curse here. I knew that’s what you were going to say,’ Tiafoe said with a laugh when reminded of the duck.
‘I think obviously the big three had a big thing to say about that for 20 years. Obviously we still got one of them (Novak Djokovic) that seems like, he’s 36, seems like he’s 16.’
For the first time since 2004, the US has five seeded players in the men’s draw: Tiafoe (10), Taylor Fritz (9), Tommy Paul (14), Chris Eubanks (28), Sebastian Korda (31) ‘American tennis is in a great spot. It’s been probably the best spot it has been in a really long time,’ Tiafoe said.
Tiafoe was beaten by eventual winner Carlos Alcaraz last year but he was a fan favorite
‘I think it’s a matter of time, whether it happens here, whether it happens in due time.
‘I hope one of us are able to do it. I hope when we do it, it’s here at the Open. It will be cool.’
Last year’s success means Tiafoe arrives with greater expectation and self-belief.
But at his most recent Slam – Wimbledon – the 25-year-old was beaten by Grigor Dimitrov, a defeat that left him ‘shocked’ at his performance and experiencing emotions that he’s ‘never really felt’.
When asked what lessons he learned from that display, Tiafoe said: ‘Sometimes people make the moment bigger than what it needs to be. At the end of the day it’s a tennis match. We played many of them. Just go out and do what you do, enjoy the game. You’re going to hopefully get that shot many more times to be in that position,’ he said.
‘There’s no need to be like: this is the time right now or the world is going to end. I think that’s kind of what happened there. (Now) I have a totally different approach: I’m just going to be me, have fun. Whatever the result is, it is. I can live with it at the end of the day, no matter what.’
Tiafoe particularly relishes these two weeks on home soil.
‘It’s arguably one of the best sporting events in the world,’ he said. ‘You can’t beat the rowdy fans here. Everyone past 3pm is drunk as hell, just having an unbelievable time. The ref has no shot at controlling that atmosphere. Just let it go and let it do what it does!’