Heirs to the throne, Part VII: Frances Tiafoe

They are the future of tennis whose stars shone brightly in 2018. Here's everything you wanted to know about them

Frances Tiafoe at Roland-Garros 2018©Cédric Lecocq/FFT
 - Alix Ramsay

They are the future of tennis whose stars shone brightly in 2018. Here's everything you wanted to know about their tennis, hobbies and personalities.

Here are five things to know about Frances Tiafoe.

History repeating itself?

It has been quite a year for Frances Tiafoe. The 20-year-old won his first ATP Tour trophy in Delray in February, qualified for the Next Gen Finals in November and ended the year as the world No.39. After three years on the tour, he had announced his arrival in style.

That victory in Delray earned him a place in the record books: the youngest American in more than a decade to win a title. And the last time two or more American men under the age of 21 finished inside the world’s top 50, it was 15 years ago and the men involved were Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri – and they did all right for themselves. Now Tiafoe and his friend Taylor Fritz are following in their footsteps.

In a country yearning for the glory days to return, for more Agassis, Samprases and Roddicks to emerge from the shadows and start collecting major trophies, Tiafoe is the brightest young hope to raise the pulses of the American public.

Been there, done that

Every player has to learn to cope with the weight of expectation, be it their own, their parents’ or their coach’s expectation. But when that player comes from a Grand Slam nation, the pressure is even greater.

To help Tiafoe find his way both on and off the court, Tiafoe has turned to Ginepri as his coach. If anyone knows what it is like to compete with a group of countrymen and try to fulfil the hopes and dreams of everyone around him, it is Ginepri.

“It kind of comes back full circle in a way,” Ginepri told the ATP website.

“I try to coach Frances with a lot of experiences from when I played, the dos and the don’ts. But it’s just been a lot of fun working with him. He comes every day with a smile on his face and works pretty hard, so he’s been improving. It’s been a great year for him. He’s the second-youngest after Andy [Roddick] to win his first title, in Delray. So it’s a good shadow to follow. He’s got a big upside career in front of him if he keeps putting in the work.”

Frances Tiafoe at the 2018 Rolex Paris Masters©Cédric Lecocq/FFT
It was meant to be

Tiafoe’s life story could have been written in Hollywood. His mother was lucky in the “Green Card lottery”, the annual allocation of immigrant visas to the United States, in 1996. That took the family from war-torn Sierra Leone to America.

Then, when Frances was just a year old, his father got a job as a construction worker building the Junior Tennis Champions Centre in Washington DC. When it was finished, Frances Senior was appointed as the maintenance man for the complex.

So, with their mother working the night shift as a nurse and their father working all day, Frances and his twin brother ended up living at the tennis centre. His earliest memories are of batting a ball against a wall or hitting on a spare court with his brother when no one was looking. Tennis, then, was destined to be his life.

Back to reality

Like all kids, Frances wanted the best trainers and the latest kit but the family’s finances could not always stretch to meet his demands. When his mother was planning a trip back to Sierra Leone for a wedding, Frances Senior asked her to take the two boys with her. He wanted his sons to realise just how lucky they were.

“That definitely put life into a completely different perspective - the poverty was pretty bad," Tiafoe told the BBC website this summer. "We realised that we ain't rich or living the high life, but we are definitely still blessed. We got food on the table every night, parents who love us, a TV, all the accessories we need.

"I was definitely not running my mouth after that - I was about the happiest kid in the world. It humbled me and made me serious. It came into my head pretty quick to use tennis as a way to help, not only myself, but our family because they have sacrificed so much."

Home is where the heart is

For all that this year has showcased Tiafoe’s talents, it did not start well. He lost four of his first five matches and then huffed and puffed his way to the quarter-finals in New York before falling to Kevin Anderson. From there, he went back to the tennis centre where he had grown up. A week of hard work there fine-tuned his game and sharpened his mind in preparation for the Delray tournament.

"You can't forget your roots," he said. "It was just about remembering why I started tennis in the first place and being among people who will love you no matter what, whether you are on top on the bottom."

As they say, the rest is history.