Sports do many things. At their best, they lift our spirits and improve our lives.
Some 30 years ago, Frances Tiafoe’s mom Alphina was desperately trying to survive a brutal civil war in her native Sierra Leone. Slaughter, mayhem and brutality gripped the African landscape. Life was a nightmare – with no relief. Alphina had to flee. She came to America.
Here she watched her son – who as a boy briefly lived in a storage room at Maryland’s Junior Tennis Champions Center – rise to be a leading prospect. He was a lighthearted kid, who nonetheless had a laser-like vision. He had a quick laugh and an imposing forehand. He was the youngest to ever win the prestigious Orange Bowl junior championship. At the 2016 US Open, the teen ventured out on Arthur Ashe Stadium to battle Roger Federer on opening night. It was the first time the stadium had a roof.
Yes, his five-set match with Fed got chippy. Still, he relishes the memory. To play the best player ever on opening night in a stadium named after Ashe with fans going bonkers – it doesn’t get any better. Early this year, Tiafoe won the Del Ray tournament to become the youngest American to win a title since Andy Roddick in 2002.
Today, on Wimbledon’s properly manicured Court 11, mother Alphina proudly watched as her now twenty-year-old son, ranked No. 53, upset the considerable Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco, ranked No. 34, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-5.
His parents had faced death in Africa and squalor in America. But today Tiafoe, who can light up a room with his wit and radiant charm, reflected on his still unfolding yet remarkable American journey.
He told a small group of reporters, “Everything’s changed. I told my parents from when I was about 11 or 12 years old that this is what it is going to be. You guys just have to sit back and wait for it…My dad always believed me. My mom always wanted me to go to college. ‘That is the first thing, you can do whatever you want after that.’…[But I said] it’s not going to go down like that. It was what it was.
“Will Smith said it best. [‘There’s no reason to have a plan B.’] There’s one line [to the future] and that’s it. There is no plan B because that is a distraction from Plan A.
“I had a vision and I wanted it every day – a dream case every day. There was always a purpose to what I was doing on court every day. At the end of the day, it’s not about me. My parents sacrificed for me and my brother. I have to do it for them. I was always inspired as a kid. I was lucky enough to have so many opportunities…all the kids look up to me now…[as] being someone who didn’t come up with everything. I represent the great idea that things are possible, that if you chase it you can get it. I just wanted to get it done.”
So when did Frances’ dream kick in? “Everybody always told me,” he recalled, “that I was someone special. There is always so much work that has to go into it. Do you know what I’m saying? I always loved the game…When I was a kid, I knew there had to be something for that.
“I still have a long way to go, but I said, ‘Look, I am going to change everyone’s life. I am going to buy you all a house, I am going to do X, Y and Z and everyone is going to be better and no one has to worry about anything.’
“Myself, I want to win a Grand Slam and be at the top of the game. That’s what everyone wants. I am still chasing it. I have beaten those top guys…So it’s kind of like ‘Why not?’ So it’s one thing at a time. I’m going the right way. I’m really not rushing. I have 15, 16 more years.”
Frances recalled that he flew up the rankings and was within the top 200 at age 17. Then he stagnated and doubted a bit. But he realized that angels don’t fly right away. “If your expectations get too high, you lose sight of who you were [and] why you play the game in the first place, because at the end of the day you love it. So I’ve just got to kick it.”
What a story it is. And here’s our hunch. With his imposing forehand, improving serve, youthful fire, athleticism, focus and unwavering vision, Frances Tiafoe might just become what all of American tennis is looking for – a Grand Slam champ.
THE EMERALD SHEEN OF CENTRE COURT: The green blanket of grass awaits. Immaculate, sparkling and slippery, it is nothing if not sublime. But, like a hapless beast in a Spanish bullring, all know its fate. It’s doomed to be a victim. Slowly it will be diminished, its emerald sheen will vanish. Mighty athletes will scuff its skin. The sun will burn it brown. Now it’s glorious – a pristine beauty. But sadly, vast dirt patches will emerge. Even the astonishing beauty of great Hollywood divas fades. Still, we love Centre Court. Whether bright green or dull and dusty, it is a sporting cathedral like no other athletic venue. And we embrace it dearly, with or without wrinkles.
YES, HE KLAHN: Coming out of Stanford, Poway California native Bradley Klahn was a good prospect. But it almost seemed like his life was marked more by trips to the doctor’s office than ATP wins. His back went out. He had surgery. He was out for two years and moved back on the Stanford campus, where he was a volunteer coach for Paul Goldstein’s Cards. Others – think Sam Querrey, John Isner, Jack Sock and Bradley’s pal Stevie Johnson – were having their moments.
Klahn was having his doubts. He considered forgetting the tour and going out into the business universe. You can do that when you’re a Stanford grad. He had a degree. But he also thought he had game. He didn’t give up, even though in tennis terms he was ancient – 28.
Yes, he was “only” ranked 168 and had never won a Wimbledon match. But, here in London, the Californian got through the brutal, Darwinian qualifying tournament. He beat the considerable Italian Simone Bolleli to reach the main draw and today beat Yuichi Sugita to score his first-ever Wimbledon win.
The left-hander will next play Britain’s No. 1, Kyle Edmund. It will be on a major show court and possibly the world’s most celebrated arena – Centre Court. Some 15,000 Brits will be rooting for their man from the village of Beverly. But, trust us, a loyal band of Yanks will be chanting, “Yes, we Klahn!”
THE POETRY OF RAFA: When asked about the incredible sunny weather at Wimbledon, Rafa said, “The life is so much better with the sunshine there.”
GO FIGURE: A five-time Slam Champion and three top ten WTA players – Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens and Caroline Garcia – have lost in the first two days. Then again, Simona Halep said the first round at Wimbledon was the trickiest for the top players.
WHAT FEDERER AND AGASSI HAVE IN COMMON: Yes, the two legends have won each of the majors, have fabulous families, wonderful foundations and incredible service returns. And, late in their careers, both left Nike. Agassi went to Adidas, the company his wife Steffi had long been with, and Federer is now wearing Uniqlo apparel. Reportedly he signed a ten-year $310 million deal. As he has for 20 years, he’s still wearing Nike shoes. But he has no deal with his old company and it is unclear what will come of Federer’s RF logos and apparel. Presumably Nike has the rights to the popular indicia. But they are Roger’s initials. Stay tuned.
DIALOGUE OF THE DAY: The Telegraph asked Sam Querrey whether there should be a heat rule for men. Querrey responded with a query: “Is there a heat rule?”
THE HAPPIEST PERSON AT WIMBLEDON: Simona Halep no longer has to answer questions about when she is going to win a Slam. BTW: 20,000 Romanians showed up to celebrate her French Open win.
DELICIANO DISLODGES ROGER: In a way it’s not so wonderful for an athlete to be largely known for his nickname. But Judy Murray came up with a fabulous moniker for the hunky Feliciano Lopez – “Deliciano.” The nickname stuck. Similarly, the popular Spanish net charger has stuck around. Today he played in his 66th straight Grand Slam to break Roger Federer’s endurance record. In an era of non-stop injuries (or in Serena’s and Victoria Azarenka’s cases, pregnancy) it’s a mind-boggling accomplishment. Here’s an unhappy truth: all the players atop the men’s game – Roger, Rafa, Nole, Murray, Wawrinka and Delpo – have been absent from school time and again.
Not Deliciano. Lopez quipped, “Wow, I am going to beat Federer at something.” BTW: in 13 matches, Lopez has never beaten Roger.
Lopez explained his consistency, saying the keys were having no bad injuries, no long rallies, good technique and “easy play.” He explained, “I don’t make a huge effort in every single shot I play…[and] mentally I have the strength. [This record] is only a number, but I’m really proud of my constancy.”
A reporter recalled, “Wayne Ferreira walked on court with a broken ankle just to get the record. Does the record represent something important to you?” Deliciano replied, “Of course…It’s about being 15 years or more playing at the top level…To stay healthy and to be able to compete against these monsters…After the 30s it was so important for me to stay fresh just to challenge these animals…Most of the opponents I play are between 10 and 15 years younger than me…I was taking care of my body….and was very lucky…I don’t drink Coke. I don’t eat bread, only once in a while. No milk. And the rest I eat everything…In the last ten years everybody’s taking care about small things…Twenty years ago you were only training on the court. Then the fitness part of the game became very important…It’s about putting everything together.”
And Deliciano has – for 66 delicious Grand Slams.