Rising tennis star Frances Tiafoe, a Maryland native, has a lot to smile about these days.
The 21-year-old recently ran to the Australian Open quarterfinals as an unseeded competitor for his best showing in a Grand Slam event since turning pro in 2015, and now ranks No. 30 in the world for the highest ranking of his career. And in early January, he partnered with 23-time major champion Serena Williams against 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and Belinda Bencic in a mixed-doubles match.
But to hear Tiafoe reflect on his journey, this stage is wholly unexpected.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” he said this week. “I’m not supposed to be doing any of these things.”
Tiafoe’s parents, Frances Sr. and Alphina Kamara, escaped a civil war engulfing Sierra Leone and settled in nearby Hyattsville in Prince George’s County. His mother worked as a nurse, and his father secured a job as a custodian at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park.
In exchange for working around the clock at keeping the facility clean during the day and managing the clay courts at night, Frances Sr. moved into a vacant room at the complex. Frances Jr. and his twin brother Franklin joined their father, sleeping there and pursuing tennis.
Vesa Ponkka, the senior director of tennis at the JTCC, said he has known the twins since they were 5 years old. Frances Jr.’s hand-eye coordination was special, but there was an aspect of his personality that resonated deeply with Ponkka.
“We have talked a lot about how he just loved the game,” Ponkka said. “He couldn’t get enough. That was the biggest thing. He would sit at courtside and just watch all of the other great players playing, and he could get never enough. Then he would go against the wall and hit for hours and hours, days after days trying to mimic those players. We could really see right away that this kid just loved the game more than anything else. … He was around tennis so much that he didn’t have a choice other than to get good. It was very clear to see that tennis was absolutely everything to him.”
Tiafoe said that thinking about his parents’ sacrifice for him and his brother gets him teary-eyed.
“I’m just thankful for my dad for having the perspective about getting us [here],” he said. “Now being able to do this and being able to do things for my family and for myself, it’s inspired people, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about inspiring others. It’s only crazy until you do it.”
The 6-foot-2 Tiafoe’s thundering forehand, megawatt smile and utter joy after wins enthralled many tennis fans who flocked to Melbourne Park to watch his Australian Open matches. His biceps slap and “Silencer” celebrations paid homage to NBA superstar LeBron James, who recognized Tiafoe’s moves on social media.
It didn’t hurt that earlier that month he had the opportunity to share the court in the Williams-Federer mixed-doubles match, won by Federer and Bencic at the Hopman Cup in Australia.
“You’re talking about, I can’t even talk how many Grand Slam [titles] on that court,” Tiafoe told USA Today after the match. “Forty-three [singles], yeah. Like, I mean, that may not ever happen again.
“The crowd was loving it from the first point. I’ve never felt something like that in a tennis match.”
On Feb. 2, he was the guest of honor at a Milwaukee Bucks-Washington Wizards game at Capital One Arena, where his accomplishments were shown on giant video screens above the court and he met Bucks three-time All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The first of those came a year ago, when Tiafoe won his first ATP title at the Delray Beach Open but his best finish in a major was a third-round appearance at Wimbledon last summer. That changed in Melbourne as he knocked out No. 5 seed Kevin Anderson in four sets in the second round, rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to overtake Andreas Seppi in the third round, and upset No. 20 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round before falling in straight sets to No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal.
Tiafoe, who celebrated his 21st birthday the day after upending Dimitrov, said his success at the Australian Open remains at times bewildering.
“I’m still watching the videos, and it’s unbelievable,” he said. “I left everything out there. So it was fun. I had a great time.”
While Franklin, who watched his brother’s matches in Orlando, Fla., said he “wanted to jump through the TV,” Alphina Kamara had a courtside seat to witness her son’s achievement.
“I think that with God, all things are possible,” she said. “Because he loved the game and worked so hard, everything comes into place. It is really amazing, and we give thanks and praise to God for the opportunity, and he is making good use of the opportunity.”
Tiafoe, who said he tried to model his powerful first serve and forehand after those of American James Blake and Spaniard Juan Martín del Potro, will try to retain the championship he won at the Delray Beach Open, which begins Feb. 15. Before that, however, he returned to the JTCC, which he considers home.
“It’s where I got started,” he said. “At that club, everyone shows so much love. It’s a family-oriented place, and they did everything for me. So I feel like every time I come home and then I go back, I play some great tennis. I feel like it’s all there, I feel like I’m in sync. I’m definitely recharged before I go out and play an event. I love the whole coaching staff, I love the kids. I just have fun being there. I just remember being a little kid and running around there. So it’s nice.”
That modesty has been noticed by others. University of Maryland women’s tennis coach Daria Panova said Tiafoe has gone out of his way to congratulate and encourage her players before and after their matches.
“It’s great to see that from somebody who’s playing professionally and is so supportive,” she said. “I think that pumps up the girls as well. A lot of great players, some of them can be standoffish and arrogant, but that’s not Frances. He’s very open, he’s very happy, he’s very honest. He’s not going to walk by and not say anything. He still walks by me and says, ‘Hi, Coach.’ Some of the [professional] players will walk by and wonder, ‘Who are you?’ He’s just a good human being.”
Tiafoe is the No. 2 American male in the world behind John Isner, and some media outlets have begun calling him the next American hope in tennis. But Tiafoe downplayed such a label.
“You just keep going to work and keep trying to get better,” he said. “And it helps that I have so many other Americans that I play tennis with. And I’m not just talking about John and Stevie [Johnson] and [Sam] Querrey. I’m talking about Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka and Michael Mmoh. These guys are still young, and they’re coming up. So I think when we’re all fully at our primes and our best, I won’t be the only one up there.”
Franklin Tiafoe, who knows his younger brother perhaps better than anyone else, said Frances Tiafoe is not yet satisfied.
“Now that he’s been to the quarterfinals of a Slam, it’s time to just keep working,” the elder Tiafoe said. “Next for him is Del Ray, which he won last year. So hopefully, he’ll repeat that and keep going and keep climbing the rankings and keep being a contender. That’s the next step, to be a contender to win a Slam.”
An earlier version of this article misstated which Tiafoe twin is older. The Sun regrets the error.