College Park, Maryland, native Francis Tiafoe, spent the entire U.S. Open adding his name to exclusive lists with his accomplishments. Aside from becoming the first American man to reach the semifinals in 16 years and the first Black American to reach the semifinals since 1972, Tiafoe set a new U.S. Open record by going 8-0 in tiebreakers. His historic run would come to an end, however, in a thrilling back and forth against young Spanish star, Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals.
The stage would have been immense for anyone, but for a 24 year-old making his semifinal debut, it was extraordinarily daunting. After putting the tennis world on notice with a win against 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, all eyes were on Tiafoe.
As if that was not enough pressure on this young man’s shoulders, he would be playing in front of a sold out crowd that featured former first lady, Michelle Obama. Fueled by an electrifying environment, Tiafoe battled Alcaraz who secured a 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3 win in the semifinal match. After the loss, Tiafoe had this to say in his on-court interview: “Obviously I would have loved to win tonight, but I think tennis won tonight. I think the crowd got what they expected. I just wish I was the one who got the ‘W.’”
What Tiafoe accomplished on the tennis court in the U.S. Open was historic in its own right. It is important to consider the impact of Tiafoe and tennis athletes of color’s accomplishments, and the impact they have on the next generation of young tennis players. For years, fans have lauded the impact of Venus and Serena Williams on the sharp increase in the popularity of tennis amongst young black women, as for years those women had shining examples of excellence to follow. Tiafoe’s success might be exactly what the country needed in order to turn the tide for young black men as well, providing a consistent model of success coupled with wins for young prospective athletes to look up to.
Tiafoe’s journey is a great illustration of the principle that dedicating time, effort, and passion into something can take one to places never before thought possible. Tiafoe, the son of a janitor at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland, was around tennis for basically his entire childhood. When he was very young, he was too small to compete, so he would study the older players’ games and practice what he saw against the wall. When he got older, he would play against kids his age, and against kids older than him. Tiafoe was not necessarily a natural, but with his study habits, practice time, and love of the sport, he quickly became a dominant force on the tennis court, and was able to turn professional at 17 years old.
Surrounded by affluent families at the tennis center, Tiafoe was the butt of many jokes growing up based on his limited wardrobe and finances. It took a lot to face this every day, and Tiafoe had to face it alone because he was oftentimes the poorest athlete and only Black athlete in those circles. These circumstances, as they would most people, made Tiafoe feel like an outcast. When asked about the effects of these jokes, Tiafoe told Andscape Media, “…those poor, poor jokes back then really hurt. It made you feel, in the back of your mind, that you weren’t cut from the same cloth.”
Currently, only 6.8% of tennis players identify as Black or African American. This figure has increased since Venus and Serena Williams took the world by storm, but it is far less than the engagement seen in other popular sports. This lack of participation stems mainly from an abnormally heavy financial burden that competitive tennis places on families in early years. Many black families can not afford to put their children in tennis, and if they can, they feel out of place. Tiafoe’s success can hopefully inspire young black people to dare to be different, and stand out in these settings that are overwhelmingly populated by affluent white athletes.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew