Frances Tiafoe cracked the Top 10 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings for the first time Monday after winning a thrilling final against Jan-Lennard Struff at the BOSS OPEN in Stuttgart. The American, at a career-high World No. 10, is the first player to break into the elite group this season.
“Super emotional. Super emotional for a guy like me with my story and everything,” Tiafoe said. “[I am] a guy who shouldn’t even really be here doing half the things he’s doing. And now when you say his name, you can say he’s Top 10 in the world. So [that is] something that no one can take from you and I’m going to remember that forever. And hopefully, I can ride that for a long time.”
Tiafoe’s background story, which will be detailed in Netflix’s hit tennis docuseries Break Point, is fit for Hollywood. His parents are both from Sierra Leone. Frances’ mother, Alphina, worked two jobs and his father, Frances Sr., was a maintenance worker at a tennis club in College Park, Maryland.
Tiafoe would often spend time at the facility, where he would hit a ball against the wall whenever possible. Sometimes Frances and twin brother Franklin would sleep in their father’s office. A career in professional tennis seemed far away.
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But with a love for the sport and plenty of determination, Tiafoe became one of the world’s most promising juniors, winning the prestigious Orange Bowl aged 15. He eventually climbed to junior World No. 2 and broke into the Top 100 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings in October 2016 at the age of 18.
#BigFoeOnTheComeUp became a part of the tennis world’s lexicon as the American surged towards the top of the sport. In 2018 at Delray Beach, he became an ATP Tour champion for the first time. The following January, he cracked the Top 30.
But Tiafoe struggled to make progress from there. Athleticism, speed and defensive skills helped him reach that point, but there were still improvements to make. A rising star with an infectious smile and energy, he thrilled crowds throughout the world, but was unable to consistently put his game together for long enough stretches.
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic flipped the world upside down in early 2020, South African Wayne Ferreira became the coach of Tiafoe, who was World No. 81 at the time.
“You cannot teach that and you don’t want to take that personality away from him. His personality is very, very special,” Ferreira wrote of Tiafoe’s personality in September 2020. “But a personality like that is sometimes difficult to convert into focus and intensity. It has pros and cons. He enjoys his tennis. He loves what he does for a living, but there are also more difficulties in keeping focussed. It’s good and bad.
“We know that if Frances can maintain his best level, he can do great things.”
Tiafoe’s focus became the centre of Ferreira’s attention. The former World No. 6 tried every trick to help his charge perform more consistently for longer periods of time. Physical training no longer featured phone use, for example.
Slowly, with improved focus and upgrades to his forehand and serve, the results began to show. The biggest payoff came at last year’s US Open, where Tiafoe broke into the mainstream.
The home favourite upset Rafael Nadal en route to the semi-finals of the season’s final major. In doing so, he found the perfect mix of harnessing the crowd’s energy and sticking to his aggressive gameplan.
Despite falling short in a five-set thriller against eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz, Tiafoe showed what he is capable of on the world’s biggest stages. He earned the support of plenty of celebrities, from NBA icon LeBron James to Michelle Obama, who was in the stands for the Alcaraz match.
Earlier this year, Tiafoe participated in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game for the first time. With his growing profile, the American has been determined to use his growing influence to help inspire future generations.
In 2020, Tiafoe earned the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award. He wrote in a piece for ATPTour.com about why setting a good example is important.
“It’s about more than just setting up my family for life. What about those kids? I want to help them write their stories right the first time,” Tiafoe wrote. “If there are kids out there who do not think they can achieve their dreams, I want to change that. I really believe success is in everyone. I want to paint a picture for them that they did not know was possible. I want to help them make that a reality.”
Tiafoe on Monday became the third African-American man to reach the Top 10, joining Ashe and James Blake. Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz are the first American pair in the Top 10 since Mardy Fish and John Isner the week of 7 May 2012.
The 25-year-old, who helped the United States win the inaugural United Cup title to begin the 2023 season, is also 12th in the Pepperstone ATP Live Race To Turin. Tiafoe is trying to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals for the first time.
Regardless of what his future holds, Tiafoe’s journey to this point has been one to remember.
“I think it’s a great message for anybody really that you can end up achieving greatness from where you are coming,” Ferreira said during last year’s US Open. “Frances has been lucky in some ways of having great help from people along the way. But it’s a great story. Hopefully there will be a movie about it one day.”