Faces of Black Excellence

Son of African immigrants Frances Tiafoe could end America’s long wait for a men’s slam champion

In the midst of thunderous cheers from the Arthur Ashe Stadium audience, Frances Tiafoe’s parents, Frances Sr. and Alphina Kamara, were beaming down with pleasure as soon as he left the court after finishing the biggest win of his career Monday to advance to the US Open quarterfinals.

The 24-year-old has overcome numerous obstacles and could put an end to America’s protracted lack of a men’s slam champion. Rafael Nadal’s 22-match winning streak at major events came to an end after Tiafoe defeated him in four sets. Tiafoe became the youngest American man to get to the US Open’s round of eight since Andy Roddick in 2006. 

Tiafoe reached the semifinals on Wednesday by beating Andrey Rublev in straight sets Wednesday 7-6 7-6 6-4. He is now the first Black American man to reach a US Open semifinal since Ashe in 1972.

“Obviously, I wasn’t the wealthy kid or wasn’t having all the new stuff or whatever. But I was just living life. I could play tennis for free, the sport I loved,” Tiafoe told CNN Sport back in 2015. Moreover, he said that he wouldn’t change his family background for anything.


Tiafoe is the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone. The children in his immediate circle came to the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces, but he, the son of a tennis center custodian, wore hand-me-downs.

“You’d see him sitting on the bench, but he was so small his feet didn’t even touch the ground,” Vesa Ponkka, a JTCC founder and senior director of tennis, was quoted by andscape.com.

During the early 1990s civil strife in Sierra Leone, Tiafoe’s parents each fled the country individually. They eventually relocated to Maryland, where they fell in love. 

Frances Sr., who had previously worked in his country’s diamond mines, got employment on the construction team building the Junior Tennis Champions Center, the premier training facility for the Washington, DC, area.

He was hired as the site’s permanent maintenance man and was permitted to turn a vacant office with one window into a living space for himself and his twin sons, Frances and Franklin, where they spent five nights a week sleeping on a massage table while Alphina served overnight shifts as a nurse, as stated by the Guardian.

Tiafoe became the youngest boys’ singles champion in the history of the famous Orange Bowl at the age of 15, propelled by the tenacity of his parents to win one of tennis’ most coveted junior competitions. He turned professional after signing with Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports agency and made his grand slam main-draw debut at the 2015 French Open.

“Honestly, when I first came on the scene, I wasn’t ready for it mentally and mature enough,” he said on court after beating Nadal on Monday, according to CNN. “I’ve been able to develop and I have a great team around me.

“I’m happy I won in front of my mom, my dad, my girlfriend and my team and to have them see what I did.”

Tiafoe has made significant progress. After suffering painful defeats against the top players on the tour for years, he has learned valuable mental lessons.

There is now a good opportunity in a broader draw to end the major title wait for American men that dates back nearly two decades to Roddick’s US Open victory in 2003.

Tiafoe will now play Carlos Alcaraz for a place in the final on Friday.

Emmanuel Kwarteng

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