Frances Tiafoe has taken the sports world by storm with his magnetic charisma, unbridled energy and dexterous skills on the tennis court. The son of Sierra Leonean immigrants, Tiafoe was destined to be a tennis star. He was raised at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC), a USTA regional training center in College Park, Maryland, where his father worked as the head of maintenance. After spending so much time at the facility, he fell in love with the game.
By the time he was 15, Tiafoe won the 2013 Orange Bowl, the youngest-ever boys’ singles tournament champion. At age 17, he became the youngest American in the main draw of the French Open since Michael Chang in 1989. Tiafoe would go on to win the U.S. Junior National Championship making a name for himself on the ATP Challenger Tour by reaching nine finals and winning four titles.
In 2016, Tiafoe broke into the top 100 of the ATP rankings and won his first ATP title at the 2018 Delray Beach Open as the youngest American man to win a tournament on the ATP Tour since Andy Roddick won it back in 2002.
At the 2019 Australian Open, he reached the quarterfinals, and he thrilled crowds at the 2022 US Open, reaching the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.
Without question, the best is yet to come for Tiafoe.
EBONY caught up with the rising tennis star and talked with him about the lack of diversity in the sport, his star-making performance in the U.S. Open and the importance of maintaining one’s mental health.
EBONY: On the court, you gave some incredible performances in the U.S. Open. You had the crowd buzzing and they were behind you all the way. After all of the years of training and preparation, how did it feel to receive so much love on one of the biggest stages in professional tennis?
Frances Tiafioe: Man, it was wild! Being in America and going on a run like that—and being Black in Arthur Ashe Stadium, I felt like he was watching over me. The crowd was definitely behind me and I could feel the energy. Every time I step on the court, I want everyone in that stadium to feel like it was worth spending their hard-earned money to see me play. Those were some really fun games and I think that’s what the crowd wants to see. And with Serena coming out with her cape on and getting her flowers, it was amazing.
In preparation for this season, I read that you totally transformed your diet and you’re currently in the best shape of your life. How has it been to transition into that lifestyle change?
I use to eat a lot of red meat, but now I try to eat it in moderation. With the help of my team, I’m eating clean and adding more greens to my diet for a more colorful plate. Now, I sleep better because I’m leaving the table not feeling so heavy and it’s been super vital for me. I’m playing tennis for hours and hours with no clock, so you have to be prepared for anything. Changing my diet has been a big help.
Your parents immigrated from Sierra Leone and they sacrificed so much for your family. How has their determination and work ethic influenced your life?
I don’t think I would be where I am if it weren’t for my parents. My dad and mom worked the night shift for years to make sure we were good. Growing up watching them work, there was no way that I was going to be lazy. Because of them, I want to bring the same effort to tennis and in my life.
As a Black male tennis player, do you feel it’s your duty to speak about the lack of diversity in the sport?
There’s always been a lack of diversity and a lack of inclusion in tennis. I do feel that I have the responsibility to pay it forward to the young Black players coming after me. I want to be a voice for them. I’m at a place where they can come and talk to me. Hopefully, I can inspire younger tennis players to do something great. It’s not just about where you came from but where you’re going.
Why is advocating for mental health awareness so important to you as a professional athlete?
I think sometimes that life is so hard, and it gets tough to get out of our own way. You can get used to bottling up your emotions. Where I grew up, if you’re going through something emotionally you’re told to “man up” or “shake it off.” But sometimes you just can’t shake it off and that’s when it’s good to have a safe haven where you’re not afraid to express those emotions and feelings. I think mental health awareness is vital for me as an athlete and for everyone.
To spread the word about mental health awareness, you along with Venus Williams and Taylor Fritz have partnered with BetterHelp, a mental health platform, to provide up to $3 million worth of free mental health therapy. When did you become a part of the team?
I thought it was a great opportunity when BetterHelp reached out to me. Both Venus and Taylor are great players and great people. I think it’s important for me to use my voice about the resources that BetterHelp has available for mental health. I just want to be a good spokesperson and let as many people as I can know about the assistance that BetterHelp is offering.