Nadal slayer Tiafoe’s backstory: Fleeing Sierra Leone, sleeping on folding tables at a tennis centre where his father was a janitor

In front of a maximum capacity crowd at the US Open on Monday, the script was written for Frances Tiafoe. He was taking on Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest tennis players to have ever lived, and thoroughly outplaying him. He was finding incredible speeds on his serve, covering the court with immense speed, and smashing winners as Nadal struggled to keep up.

Two sets to one up with one foot in the quarterfinal, the screws turned. Claiming to be distracted by the closing of the roof, Tiafoe made a few uncharacteristic errors in the fourth set, handing Nadal a break. The Spaniard was on his way to doing what he always does, gritting out a result when he’s down, peaking at the right moment, finding a way.

But Tiafoe tore up the script. What followed next was an onslaught of power, shotmaking ability, and mental fortitude, as the American played some of the best tennis of his life to round out a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win – the biggest of his career.

The fourth set may well have been the toughest battle he has ever faced on court, but in the face of everything he has been through over the past two decades, it was hardly any challenge at all. The 24-year-old’s father, Frances Sr, was a diamond mine worker in his native Sierra Leone. He fled the African country when it was torn apart with civil war and immigrated to the United States, where, as luck would have it, he got a job as a maintenance worker in the Junior Tennis Champions Centre in Maryland. The centre would become their home, as him and his wife, Alphina, were allowed to convert a small office into a home for Frances Jr and his twin brother Franklin.

Unwillingly, tennis became a huge part of the twins’ life ever since they were children. They were allowed to practice at the JTCC, where they would have to borrow equipment and cower in front of the rich kids that played there. Tiafoe’s father instilled in him the value of being able to earn his own privilege, and through tennis, he never looked back.

The kids would sleep on chairs and folding tables at the tennis centre, and find shelter in tennis since the age of 4, while their father converted his contractual role to a permanent janitor role, and their mother worked multiple shifts as a nurse.

In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Tiafoe revealed how much it helped him that his parents instilled African roots in him, looking back at the trip him and his family took to Sierra Leone. “We were eight. It was good for us to understand life is different in Africa. It humbles you and it’s good I was raised an African,” he said.
The hunger is evident in his playing style, he prefers power over precision, speed over style, physicality over technique. Against Nadal on Monday, he did to him what the Spaniard had done to countless others – kept getting the ball back in play, kept going after his groundstrokes, kept making Nadal win one point twice or thrice.
The 24-year-old has been knocking on the door of the summit of men’s tennis for a few years after finding great success on the junior tour, reaching the semifinals at the US Open and winning prestigious junior tournaments like Les Petits As and the Orange Bowl.

This year, he came into the US Open as the 22nd seed, with momentum behind him. He reached the fourth round in Wimbledon, the semifinal in Atlanta, and the quarterfinal in Washington – his home tournament where he was a whisker away from beating Nick Kyrgios.

His steady rise on tour started back in 2019, when he reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open, losing to Nadal. Tiafoe defeated Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round there, following which he beamed with pride. “I told my parents 10 years ago that I was going to do this, that I was going to change their lives and my life,” he said emotionally. “Now I’m in the quarters of a Slam at 21. I can’t believe it, man.”

On Monday, as his family looked on while he took down one of the greats of the game to reach his second quarterfinal, there was recognition he could go even further this time around.

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