Frances Tiafoe came to win
OPINION: The young tennis star has shined at the U.S. Open, and his mother is beaming with pride.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Frances Tiafoe battled his way to the semifinals of the U.S. Open by playing spectacular, aggressive tennis while his mother, Alphina Kamara, sat in his box beaming with pride all along. She’s a tall woman with a big smile who seems to have an aura that emits light and positivity. In the moments after her son beat No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal and one of the greatest players in tennis history, I talked to her. And she said she’d told her son, “Don’t play the name. Play the ball! He has two arms and two legs just like you!”
I thought that was great advice for someone who was about to play one of the sport’s legends. As a tennis player, it’s easy to fall into thinking about someone’s resume’ and feeling intimidated. Later, in a press conference, I asked Tiafoe a question. “Before you played Nadal,” I said, “your mom told you, ‘Don’t play the name. Play the ball.’ And…” He interrupted with comic timing. “She says that before every match,” he said dismissively. The room of reporters laughed.
Tiafoe beat Nadal, and then in the quarterfinals faced No. 9 seed, Andrey Rublev, the great young Russian who wallops the ball as hard as anyone on the tour. But again, Tiafoe was undeterred. He didn’t play the name. He played the ball. He was able to fend off Rublev’s power and get into net to take over points. He also was able to smack 18 aces with his huge serve that repeatedly clocked at 135 mph.
Rublev is ranked well above Tiafoe, the No. 26 seed, but Kamara told me she knew he wouldn’t be intimidated because they’d played when they were teenagers in junior tennis. “Frances never lost to him,” she said with pride. Mama Tiafoe was so proud this whole week that she seemed to be floating on a cloud.
Tiafoe’s explosion into the semifinals of the U.S. Open is a career highlight for him, and it’s a surprise to many in tennis, but his people know there’s a process going on. His coach, Wayne Ferreira, said, “Some players have difficulties because they’re very, very talented, and they’re playing the game without fully understanding what they can do.”
He said he led Tiafoe to a new eating regimen. “He had to really improve the food intake,” Ferreira said. “He liked a lot of candy and chocolate, and he’d eat at unusual times. He missed breakfast a lot, or he wouldn’t eat after matches. He just needed a lot of guidance on that side. He was professional, but he wasn’t professional enough.”
The team refined Tiafoe’s nutrition, and it’s made a huge difference – he’s succeeding earlier than Ferreira foresaw. “I thought he’d be at his best next year,” Ferreira said. “The semifinals is a bit unexpected. But our progress is happening.”
I asked Coach Ferreira about Tiafoe’s vastly improved serve, now a very powerful weapon. He said that had also been a big focus. “We worked really hard on the serve,” he said. “I think he used to look at it as a time to just slide the ball in, and we worked very hard on him being able to bang the serve as hard as he can.” That’s a total shift in perspective on the most important shot in the game.
Tiafoe said he welcomed all the changes and the hard work. “I’ve really fallen in love with the process,” he said, admitting that years earlier he had become complacent but had rededicated himself to being as great as he could.
“In the times when cameras weren’t on me, I was able to get better. I’m comfortable with myself and it’s all coming to fruition,” he said. “A reporter asked him about a rubber bracelet he was wearing. It reads, “Believe Why Not Me?” He replied, “Anything to give you a little inspiration. I look at that and think, ‘Yeah, why not me?’ You put the time in so, why not me and believe in yourself. You gotta believe in yourself before anyone else does.” He paused. “Everyone loves a Cinderella story. I’m trying to make one.”
Tiafoe’s journey to the top of tennis continues…
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.
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