I lost a tennis match against Frances Tiafoe. I was 24, he was 13.


My opponent on the tennis court that day was about a foot shorter than me. His baggy T-shirt and shorts hung loosely over his body. I had been playing tennis for a few years with friends and I felt my game improving with each game. But as I went 3-1 and then 4-1 in a seven-point game, the player on the other side of the net laughed and flashed his gap-toothed smile. Then, before the next point began, something about her behavior changed. He stopped tapping the ball softly on the net and started ripping winners.

The game was suddenly tied. And then, what seemed like seconds later, it was over. Frances Tiafoe beat me, 7-4. I was 24 years old. He was 13.

“It’s hilarious,” Tiafoe said when I told her the story in 2018 for an interview with Washington City Paper. “I don’t remember at all. It’s actually hilarious. It’s good for me. I cleaned you up.

Tiafoe said that, of course, with a smile. He may not remember mopping the floor with me, but other people there that day do. To make sure my memories were correct, I called Bonnie Vona, the tournament director that week for the junior tennis tournament in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We both remember that the games were over for the day and Tiafoe, while waiting for his coaches, was walking around short by himself with a racquet in his hand.

I was working with Vona and the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the US Tennis Association as part of their communications team, and during the day’s cleanup, two interns and I noticed Tiafoe training alone. We asked him if he wanted to play. He immediately accepted.

“My biggest memories of Frances or my thoughts when I think of Frances is that he would hang around and play as long as he could find someone to play him,” Vona said. “He wanted to be on the pitch playing.”

Tiafoe’s insatiable passion for tennis has always been on display. But now the kid from Prince George’s County who used to win junior tournaments against older players – and games against amateur amateur players a decade his senior – is showing it on the biggest stage in sports and inspiring fans of tennis everywhere with its unlikely path.

How Frances Tiafoe Improved Her Fitness To Make The US Open Semi-Finals

Tiafoe, 24, will play Friday night in the US Open semi-final against third-seeded Carlos Alcaraz. It is the first time an American has made the US Open semifinals since Andy Roddick in 2006. Tiafoe is also the first black man from the United States to reach the US Open semifinals since Arthur Ashe in 1972, and he did so by winning matches at a stadium named after the late Ashe.

“Every time I win, I just want to inspire a group of people to know that you can – I mean, anything is possible,” Tiafoe told reporters Wednesday during her post-match press conference. “For me to do this and talk about how I feel about being at the US Open since coming here is crazy. At the end of the day, I love the fact that because of Frances Tiafoe, he there’s a lot of people of color playing tennis. That’s obviously a goal for me. That’s why I’m here trying pretty hard.

Tiafoe’s tennis story begins with her parents, both immigrants from war-torn Sierra Leone. As Liz Clarke of The Post wrote in 2014, Tiafoe’s father, Frances Tiafoe Sr., signed on as a day laborer to help build the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., in 1999. Tiafoe Sr. took on several responsibilities as a caretaker, cleaning the complex during the day and maintaining the grounds during the evening. He would sleep and shower at the resort. Tiafoe’s mother, Alphina Kamara, worked night shifts as a licensed practical nurse, and her parents’ schedules meant that Tiafoe and her twin brother, Franklin, sometimes slept in a spare bedroom at the tennis center, so that Tiafoe Sr. can watch them.

The boys roamed the facility with tennis racquets almost as big as them, and Frances quickly developed a fascination with the game. He watched older children practice, whether in group lessons or private, then imitated those same skills against a wall, said Martin Blackman, general manager of player development for the US Tennis Association and former director of the JTCC. At age 8, Tiafoe joined the center’s 10-and-under program, and the following year qualified for the Junior Champions program, then a year-round invitational program for tournament-level players. 12 and under.

“The way Frances came into the program and her dad was part of the construction team that built the facility, I think that part is very unique and serendipitous,” Blackman said of Tiafoe’s journey. “But once Frances was in the program, the progression is what you would expect from someone with the skills and the passion he has.”

In the solemn world of tennis, Frances Tiafoe brings the noise

Chris Vrabel has seen Tiafoe’s prodigious talent and drive firsthand. In a USTA Mid-Atlantic qualifying tournament for a national event, the then 13-year-old Tiafoe defeated Vrabel, who was three years older and one of the best junior players in the country.

“I really felt a lot of pressure playing with him because I’m so much older,” said Vrabel, now a 27-year-old software engineer who lives in Seattle. “I was just impressed with his ability and composure to play at that age.”

That year, Vrabel stayed in the same house as Tiafoe during a travel tournament and discovered Tiafoe’s fun personality. Tiafoe made the other guys laugh by repeating random quotes from TV shows, Vrabel recalled, and he always seemed to be enjoying himself. The following year, the two again contested the final of the 18-and-under division at a local tournament. Vrabel came into the match highly motivated and beat Tiafoe, 6-3, 6-1. He recalled Tiafoe becoming “pretty upset” by the lopsided loss, but minutes later Tiafoe got over his frustrations and started cracking jokes.

“I think everyone would agree he was the funniest guy around,” Vrabel said. “He was younger, a little more immature, but still fun to be around. He was constantly cracking jokes, saying things we didn’t really understand but were funny. He was always joking. It was always a good laugh around him.

The junior tennis friends exchanged a text or two last year, and Vrabel last saw Tiafoe at the Citi Open tournament in DC about six years ago. Vrabel, who played college tennis for Cornell University, isn’t surprised by Tiafoe’s success. He had the thirst and the humility to improve every year, and a style of play that seemed to suit the pros, Vrabel said, adding: “He was always someone who seemed destined to succeed.”

When Tiafoe plays in the US Open semifinals on Friday, Vrabel will support his friend and former teammate and junior tennis rival.

Do you have what it takes to be a ball player at the US Open?

“He’s always easy to get along with, which makes it even easier for him to root for,” Vrabel said. Plus, thanks to Tiafoe, Vrabel can now tell his friends that he’s already beaten a US Open semi-finalist. But don’t expect Vrabel to ask him for another game.

“I want to keep the 1-1 record against him,” he joked. “I don’t want to jeopardize it. … I would be lucky to win a match, that’s for sure.

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