Annoyed spectators at the U.S. Open, a little consolation: Frances Tiafoe, one of America’s top hopes to win a first U.S. male Grand Slam title in two decades, feels your pain.
Tiafoe, 25, wants you to have more freedom. He doesn’t want you to have to wait in an Arthur Ashe stadium corridor to watch him play, just because you went to the concession stands during a match and can’t re-enter your seats until the next changeover. (Some poor saps were stuck outside for 25 minutes on Monday night, as Coco Gauff and Laura Siegemund played a 30-point game to start the second set. At least they could finish their pizzas.) He knows you paid good money for those tickets and doesn’t think you should miss the point or rally of the match just because you had to use the loo.
So what if someone walks into your line of sight during a serve? Basketball free-throw shooters often have to face hundreds of fans screaming in their faces during high-pressure situations, with no umpire there to shout, “quiet please.” Tiafoe wants tennis to modernize, and allow fans to scream and shout and have a great time the whole way through, just like they do at basketball and football and soccer games around the world.
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“The game needs to introduce fanfare and more fan engagement,” Tiafoe tells me in August from his home in Washington, D.C., where he was preparing for the U.S. Open; Tiafoe cruised to a 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 first-round win over fellow American Learner Tien at the Open on Monday. “They need to be able to move around, talk a little bit. We need to evolve with the times. Otherwise we’re going to be left behind.”
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A year ago Tiafoe felt firsthand the power of an uproarious New York City crowd. The fans often ignored tennis’ rules of decorum and roared liberally, helping to propel him to a magical run to the semifinals, where he lost to the eventual champion, Carlos Alcaraz, in a five-set classic on an unforgettable Friday night. Along the way, Tiafoe upset Rafael Nadal, the four-time U.S. Open champion, in the round of 16. While Nadal may have been a sentimental favorite during that match, from that moment on, the crowd fell hard for Tiafoe.
“New Yorkers love great entertainment,” says Tiafoe. “Everyone is tapped into tennis. The energy is second to none. Some people are made for it. Some people aren’t. I feel like I can make that stadium shake.”
Tiafoe is part of a long-awaited American emergence on the men’s side of the game. Andy Roddick was the last American man to win a Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open in 2003. Serbian Novak Djokovic, who is back in the U.S. Open after missing last year’s tournament, and Alcaraz of Spain are clear favorites to meet in the finals (Djokovic has won the Australian and French Opens this year, while Alcaraz triumphed at Wimbledon). But Tiafoe and his fellow Americans remain a threat. While Tiafoe sits at No.10 in the world rankings, Taylor Fritz is ranked No. 9. Tommy Paul, at No. 14, beat Alcaraz in Toronto earlier in the month and made the Australian Open semis. Christopher Eubanks made an impressive run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals, and Ben Shelton, who’s just 20, did the same in Australia. (Along with Tiafoe, Fritz, Paul, Eubanks, and Shelton have all advanced to the second round of the U.S. Open; Tiafoe faces Sebastian Ofner of Austria in the second round on Wednesday.)
The son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, Tiafoe grew up in suburban Washington, D.C. His father was hired as a custodian at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md. Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, would often sleep in the storage room in the tennis center while their mother worked night shifts as a nurse. Spending so much time at the tennis center turned Tiafoe on to the game. “I loved the one-on-one competition of it,” he says. “There’s problem solving. You can’t lean on anyone but yourself. It builds character.”
Tiafoe is a big NBA fan: he chatted with Kevin Garnett after defeating Tien on Monday, and is good friends with Bradley Beal, the former Washington Wizards star who was traded to the Phoenix Suns this offseason. “But you look at a game of hoops, you talk to 15 guys, and everyone has a different assessment of what’s going on,” says Tiafoe. “There are so many people you can point fingers at. You talk to me after my match, there’s only one thing that happened. Win or lose, it’s on me.”
He’s trying to get more young Americans, especially those from urban areas, interested in tennis. His foundation, the Frances Tiafoe Fund, aims to increase tennis access for inner-city youth, and one of his sponsors, Clif Bar, just announced a partnership with Tiafoe to bring clinics to places like Atlanta, Houston, Miami, and New York City. “We want to make tennis cool for people in areas that wouldn’t necessarily pick up the game,” he says. “It’s looked at as a country-club sport, rather than a sport for everyone. Kids feel like they have to act a certain way or be a certain way. Honestly, as long as you’re being respectful to the game, you can show your personality and show your emotions. We’re all human.”
Along those lines, Tiafoe made a bold fashion statement on the court Monday, rocking a loud teal shirt, splashed with turquoise and orange. He looks forward to playing for the New York crowd over the next two weeks–and to one day seeing tennis eradicate its rules on fan movement and fun. Especially at the U.S. Open, where things are already rowdy. “You can’t control 22,000 people,” says Tiafoe. “Seventy percent of the fans are just loaded and just absolutely drunk. You can tell them ‘hush’ as you want.” But unless “they’re off that drink,” he says, crowd control is largely moot anyway. No quiet, please.
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