It’s not often that there’s a young American worth following in the men’s singles tournament at Wimbledon. But in Frances Tiafoe, there is hope.
The 20-year-old from Riverdale in Prince George’s County advanced to the third round of the Grand Slam by routing France’s Julien Benneteau, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, on Thursday. The 52nd-ranked Tiafoe, who upset former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and No. 30 Fernando Verdasco in the first round, faces Russia’s Karen Khachanov on Saturday in London.
Here’s five things to know about the Maryland-born wunderkind:
1. He grew up with tennis, only not in the way many precocious athletes do
After Tiafoe’s father, Frances Sr., immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone, he needed a job. Tiafoe Sr. worked day and night as a maintenance man at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park and moved into a room in the complex.
After his family started to grow, tennis quickly rubbed off on his U.S.-born son, Frances, who from a very young age would practice like the older boys at the tennis center. He was eventually accepted into the academy himself.
2. His life could have been very different if not for his parents
Tiafoe’s father survived more than three years in the diamond mines of Sierra Leone before leaving for London in 1988 and then for Maryland in 1993.
Amid a bloody civil war in Sierra Leone that left over 50,000 people dead and millions displaced, Tiafoe’s mother, Alphina, won the U.S. government’s visa lottery and a green card to work stateside. she left the country in 1996.
Two years after Alphina left, her mother and other family members fled to Guinea. When her mother called Alphina in Maryland, she described “children as young as 10 wielding guns.”
3. He won an international title at a young age
In 2013, Tiafoe, then 15, entered the Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships and took two of three sets against Floridian Stefan Kozlov, 7-6 (3), 0-6, 6-3, to clinch the boys’ 18-and-under singles title. He was the tournament’s youngest-ever such champion.
For context, Roger Federer, the winningest men’s tennis player in the sport’s history, claimed the Orange Bowl title at age 17.
4. While his father supported his dream, his mother did not
His mother, on the other hand, initially could not see how tennis would bring her son the life she wanted for him. She wanted Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, to attend college.
“Every kid I played with or against had more than [money] me and would never have to worry about money or whether they’d be able to go to college,” Tiafoe wrote. “While turning pro had a lot of upside, for me, it could also have turned out to be a disaster.”
Tiafoe and his mother battled about his life’s ambition constantly, even after he had started earning a living as a pro. However, during Wimbledon this week, his mother was whistling a different tune.
5. Tiafoe has faced off against Federer before — and wasn’t half bad
At the 2017 Miami Open, Tiafoe, then 19, played his way to the second round and a matchup with the fourth-seeded Federer, who won, 7-6 (2), 6-3. The 19-time Grand Slam champion praised Tiafoe afterward, saying both players ought to be “quite happy” with their performances.
They met again in August, in the first round of the U.S. Open. Tiafoe claimed the first and fourth sets, but Federer, the tournament’s third seed and an eventual quarterfinalist, battled back to win, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4.
"I want to win matches like this," said Tiafoe, then ranked No. 70 in the world. "For a while I feel like I can play against anyone in the world. Now, it's a matter of finishing these types of matches."
Bonus: He’s a Washington Capitals fan, of course
Here he is, wearing Stanley Cup championship gear with fellow tennis pro Denis Kudla.