Frances Tiafoe Wants to Become the LeBron James of Tennis

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In 2001, 22.7 million people tuned into CBS to watch the US Open women’s final between Serena and Venus Williams. Last year’s finals however, now on ESPN, between Serena and Naomi Osaka, attracted 3.1 million viewers, while the men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martín del Potro drew in 2.1. Although last year’s numbers are up from the previous year, tennis, especially American men’s tennis, is still far from its heyday of the ‘90s and 2000’s.

Luckily for us, Serena — who is still a favorite to win this year’s Open, 20 years after the first time she captured the title — is arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, male or female, and has inspired a new generation of young athletes of both genders. Among them is a young, up-and-comer by the name of Frances Tiafoe.

Tiafoe, 21, was born and raised in Maryland to parents who immigrated from Sierra Leone. His father worked as a custodian at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, and was given a spare office where he spent some of his nights after a long day on the job. Tiafoe, along with his twin brother, weren’t in the tennis program, but often stayed the night with their father, sleeping on a massage chair that was stored in a closet. Eventually, a six-year-old Frances was seen by coaches pounding tennis balls with every-growing ferocity against the facility’s hitting wall every morning and night, and was soon admitted to the Center.

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Flash forward to the present day and Tiafoe is now one of four American men in the top 45, three of which are 21 years of age, and is already being compared to greats like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. He has a powerful serve and an equally-powerful, but rather unorthodox forehand, as well as the charisma, intensity and billion-dollar smile that American fans love to see.

Last year, Tiafoe lost in the second round of the US Open, and earlier this year he reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, his best Grand Slam finish yet. Looking to end the 2019 Majors season with a successful run at this year’s Open, the budding superstar athlete sat down with us at Amex’s Fan Experience Center to talk about his career, what he hopes to accomplish in Flushing, the state of American tennis, becoming the LeBron James of his sport, and much more.

How do you feel coming off Winston-Salem?
I feel good. The last couple of weeks have been good. I played well in Cincinnati as well, beating [Gaël] Monfils and had a tight match with Bautista [Agut]. And Winston was also good. I’ve been playing pretty good. I’ve been more aggressive, trying to get some good matches under me. But now I’m here and it’s definitely time to pop off.

What parts of your game have you been focusing on heading into the US Open?
Ultimately, trying to be in a good head space, take care of my strategy and playing on my terms, playing aggressive, taking it to my opponents, and playing off my front foot. I want to make sure I’m coming to the net, having a lot of energy, really just taking it to my opponent, and playing to win, not to lose. No fear, and playing my ass off, competing for every point.

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What would make this US Open a successful one?
If I can get to the second week, I’ll be extremely happy, because I haven’t had the best stretch lately. If I can get some wins under me; it’s all about confidence, you know, you get one, two wins then you start feeling good, and that’s when good things happen. In the early rounds you got to shake off those nerves and just keep going from there.

What feelings or emotions do you have being American and playing in the US Open?
It’s more excitement, you’re anxious, you just want to get out there and get going. This is where the Americans got to make a big push because we haven’t had massive runs, making it to the finals or anything like that, so everyone’s looking for that. But the fans will be behind us. And the energy, you can’t beat it, being in New York and all. Even in the city, when you’re just kicking it, you feel it. There’s good vibes out here.

Do you have any plans for your downtime here in NYC?
My girlfriend is coming, so she’ll probably make me do some date night stuff with her — I’ll probably take her around the city. But I like to be pretty low-key when I’m playing, but then after, we’ll have some fun and enjoy the city a little bit.

How would you define the current state of American tennis?
Right now, it’s in a pretty good space. There’s a lot of young guys playing well. Obviously it’s not what it was, but I think now or in the next year and some change, Americans will be pushing for a [Grand] Slam. I had a great year at Australia, and there’s [Taylor] Fritz and Reilly [Opelka], there’s a ton of guys playing great. So if the stars align, and they take the opportunity, it’s kind of like a “why not” thing.

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You’ve said in the past “I want young kids to play tennis because of me.” How important is it for kids, and especially kids of color, to see someone like yourself on court?
I think it’s a massive thing. I mean, I would love to see more people of color playing tennis, but it’s not easy, it’s an expensive sport — rackets, training, travel, clothing, etc. But that’s why I’m here, to maximize my time and give those kids an opportunity. I was one of those kids and I got that opportunity, I took it, went balls to the wall, and now I’m here. It’s gonna take guys that are not just thinking about themselves but the young kids too.

Venus and Serena, who have long championed this movement, are mentors of your’s, correct? What have you learned from them?
Greatness, that’s pretty much it. All they care about is being great, and how they carry themselves, it’s pretty interesting. They’re much different than I am, they don’t really converse with any other competitors at all, it’s kind of just them, they ride for each other and are there for each other. They’re very professional. But off-court, they kick it, they have a good time. They’re very chill, they’re almost like little kids out there.

Do you feel you face any heightened challenges being black in a sport dominated mostly by white athletes?
I don’t think about it like that. I just go with what I want to do; I have my certain goals and that’s pretty much it. Honestly, I feel more love in that sense, because