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No secret sauce: Frances Tiafoe has developed a robust appetite for big occasions
His parents instilled the sacrifice it takes to be great; the likes of LeBron James and Steph Curry helped him see commitment to the craft in motion.
Published Mar 23, 2023
It's the same message, that anyone who is great, obviously, doing [his] business each and every day, the sacrifice you have to make for it. It's funny, your parents tell you the same s&#t all the time, but when you hear it from Steph Curry, or you hear it from LeBron, it's a little different. I'm sorry, mom. Sorry, dad. It's a little different hearing it from them. Frances Tiafoe at the BNP Paribas Open, on the elevated work ethic he has embraced after his ATP breakthrough led to a period of laxity
Complacency is one of the most insidious handicaps that can befall a player who has attained a measure of fame and fortune, and it was doubly dangerous for Tiafoe. He’s a charismatic and mercurial talent whose inspiring backstory (we all know it) put him on the fast track to stardom with all its hairpin turns and chicanes.
This is a problem unique to tennis, because it is perceived as—heck, in many ways it still is—an elitist sport. A rich kid’s enterprise. A sport that radiates, and briskly trades on, the patina of class even as it pursues greater accessibility and diversity. The NBA and NFL abound in athletes who succeed after overcoming glaring material and social disadvantages, so their stories don’t resonate as volubly in the public forum. It’s an enormous challenge for someone like Tiafoe to overcome the many hurdles this presents. But overcome them he has.
Tiafoe, the 25-year old son of poor but hard-working immigrants from Sierra Leone, is perched at career-high ATP ranking of No. 14. He still has just one ATP title, earned in 2018, but he has appeared in four other finals. More importantly, the mercurial right-hander with the basso profundo voice and that unmistakable, tippy-toe tread, is developing into a big-match player.
Tiafoe, who made his breakthrough at the majors with a quarterfinal at the 2019 Australian Open, was a semifinalist last week at the Indian Wells Masters 1000. Earlier, he was a key member of the triumphant U.S. squad that won the inaugural United Cup in January. Last September at the US Open, he almost halted Carlos Alcaraz’s drive to the title in a five-set semifinal barnburner. Tiafoe has developed a robust appetite for big occasions and revels in them, suggesting that he’s ready to join the elite.
It’s difficult to say when Tiafoe turned this career corner, but he won just one match over the ensuing five Grand Slam events. In 2020, he fell as low as No. 82. He was treading water until Wayne Ferreira came aboard as his coach and began to affect his transformation.
In addition to working on the X’s and O's of Tiafoe’s explosive game, the South African coach helped instill a deeper commitment to fitness and consistent, hard work. “It's just interesting how, like, there is no secret sauce,” Tiafoe told reporters after his recent Indian Wells win over that tough out, Cam Norrie. “You've just got to get in there and do the unseen hours. What you do in the dark will come to the light.”
If it seems like it took Tiafoe a long time to arrive at a conclusion many accept as a given it may be partly because his personal history helped make him a widely recognized star before his accomplishments warranted that status. “I'm a guy [who] came from very humble beginnings,” he said. “I came on the scene, I was 18 years old, 19 years old, in [the] Top 100. Guys thinking I'm gonna be the guy to do it, X, Y, and Z, [the] American hope, blah, blah, blah. It was tough.”
Being “the guy” also feathered in temptations. All that money, for someone who once had so little. All the doors his name opened. All that sincere support from adoring fans. All that stuff that distracts and can contribute more to losing than winning tennis matches. “I don't think I was really ready for it,” Tiafoe said of his stardom. “You know, I was, you know, a young guy having money, I was enjoying my life, you know, outside activities and stuff like that. Now I just honed it in.”
John Wilkerson, who developed the games of former Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil on public courts in Houston, once told me that it made him sad to see how easily so many Black junior players (and there were far fewer of them back then) assumed they had “made it” in tennis when a racquet manufacturer or shoe-and-clothing maker put them on the free list.
“All I want is for my kids to expect as much out of life and out of themselves as those who went in with greater advantages,” Wilkerson told me for my book, “The Courts of Babylon” (Scribner 1995). Anything short of that means they’re not getting or giving themselves a fair deal.”
Tiafoe has always gotten a fair deal from others, now he’s giving himself one. He’s not measuring success in relative terms, he’s not fleeing from the pressure, hiding in the good life. What he really wants is simple. He said it is “[to] win a Grand Slam. . . if I can walk away from the game, ‘I won a slam,’ I will sleep totally well at night. No one's gonna tell me sh#@.”
No one but your mom, and remember, she was as right as LeBron and Steph.