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Something Bigger

Aug 28 2017
Photo by
Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire
Photo by
Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire
Aug 28 2017

A lot of people who follow tennis know my story by now.

But if you don’t, here’s the short version: I’m the son of immigrant parents from Sierra Leone. When I was a kid, my dad got a construction job at College Park Tennis Club (home of the JTCC) in 1999, a new tennis academy in the D.C. area. When the construction was done, he remained at the facility as the maintenance man. While my dad worked, I picked up the game during nights and weekends at the facility when the other kids weren’t around. I’d hit against the wall by myself, mimicking techniques I had seen older boys at the academy do. I’d imagine I was playing against Rafa or Roger in the U.S. Open, that those guys were just on the other side of the wall. Some nights, my twin brother, Franklin, and I would even fall asleep on the massage tables at the club while my dad worked all night.

Eventually, I was accepted into the academy, and the rest is history.

But the whole story is actually a lot crazier than you think.

Even after I got accepted into the clinics, I played with hand-me-down rackets and gear from my wealthier peers, or used demo rackets the club supplied. I like to tell everybody that I didn’t choose tennis, tennis chose me — that I was built to play this sport — but that didn’t make it any easier for me. When I told people that I wanted to grow up to be a tennis player, they laughed at me.

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

My dad has always been supportive, but he was laughing, too. (“If you want to do it, then do it!” he’d tell me). My mom actively did not want me to play professionally. She and I fought about the decision for years, even after I turned pro and started making a little money — all she wanted for me and Franklin was for us to go to college, and I had earned my ticket anywhere I wanted to go. She had a hard time wrapping her head around that. On top of all of that, every kid I played with or against had more than me and would never have to worry about money or whether they’d be able to go to college. While turning pro had a lot of upside, for me, it could also have turned out to be a disaster.

I realized early that I could either sit there and be sad about my situation — which I did, plenty of times, wishing I was one of the other kids — or use it as a way out. I look at it like this: Your parents are your parents. You came up how you came up. You can’t change that. What I could control though was how hard I worked. I knew I had an ability to help my family and my community in a way that my peers at the academy couldn’t. No matter what they ended up doing after tennis, they were going to be fine. For me, there was so much more at stake.

Tennis was my way out.

I know it’s a cliché to say, “There isn’t anything you can’t do if you believe,” but that’s something I subscribe to, even if it’s corny. But the way I see it, it’s all about going out and doing what you believe you can. That’s the hard part.

I got away from that in the summer of 2016.

I was in a bit of a rut. As I slowly climbed up the ATP ladder from the very bottom, I was getting more and more media attention — more people knew who I was when I’d walk out on the grounds. More people knew who I was in the locker rooms at the various ATP events. I was starting to get little head nods from some of the biggest guys on tour. It made me a little too comfortable. The expectations, which had been placed on me when I was 14 or 15 years old, had gotten to me a little bit. I wouldn’t say I had relaxed — I was still out there, grinding — but I drifted away from what made me a pro in the first place. I  got caught up in that status. I just assumed that the success would come, like I’d been promised it would.

When I was competing back then, I think that at times I felt too relaxed, so that when things got tight, I overcompensated by tightening up too much. I needed to get back to how it was when I was a kid — just having fun out there. Being loose. Just imagining myself back in front of that wall at the JTCC. At the end of the day, it’s a game, and I forced myself to remember what it was like for me when I was coming up. To say the least, this isn’t a normal tennis story. I had to remember: Look, the only reason I’m doing this is because I want to be doing it. While it has been amazing to be the person who makes the most money in my family, and to be helping out my parents, it was my choice to play.

And that’s what I needed to remember every time I went out there.

A year ago today, I was ranked in the 170s. Something I don’t think casual fans understand is what a grind our calendar is — you have to manage everything about your body and bring it every week. You can go years straight without taking a day off from tennis. The fitness level required to maintain this kind of schedule is insane. A lot of these tour stops, especially at the Challenger level where I was competing last summer, aren’t glamorous. There’s not a whole lot of money involved. You’re doing it for pride, and to inch up the ATP rankings, rankings that define your career and what opportunities come your way.

And that’s the level at which I finally broke through. I won two Challenger tournaments back-to-back before the French Open, and I made a huge jump in the rankings. This year, I’ve been in the 60, 70 range, enough to qualify outright for all of the Slams and many of the other major ATP events. In Cincinnati, I beat Alexander Zverev, who was ranked seventh in the world, the highest-ranked player I’ve ever beaten. Anytime you beat a player that good, it’s a major step.

Now I’m at 70. And there’s still so much work left to do.

But I know I can compete with the best in the world and make my career something even bigger than I ever thought it could be.

Aaron Gilbert/Icon Sportswire

Last year, I played Roger at the Miami Open.

That was an experience.

Though I had never played Roger before, I knew him a little. His agent had tried to sign me, so Roger had been in touch and we practiced together a few times. We were friendly. We had shot a few texts back and forth. So knowing that I was going to play him, I wasn’t as nervous as I could have been.

When I stepped onto the court, I got a great ovation — I honestly thought, Wow, this is crazy. 14,000 people are screaming their asses off for me.

But then Roger walked out.

The whole grounds shook. The P.A. announcer listed his accomplishments:

Seven-time Wimbledon champion.

Winner of 93 career titles.

Five-time U.S. Open champion.

18-time Grand Slam Champion… Roger Federer.

I thought to myself, This isn’t real. I’m playing Roger Federer, the greatest player to ever hold a racket.

But here’s the most mind-blowing thing, something I couldn’t even process at the time: I could have beaten him in that match. I ended up losing 7-6, 6-3 but I had gotten up 6-5 in the first set and the thought crossed my mind — I have what it takes to beat someone like Roger Federer. Roger Federer!

I didn’t end up winning. But when I sat down in my chair after the match, I had this flashback to me hitting against that wall at JTCC as a eight-year-old. What are the chances that a kid like me, a kid with immigrant parents who picked up the game the way I did, who came up how I came up, would ever get the chance even to lay eyes on Roger Federer?

I was across the net from him.

That’s a moment I’ll hold onto forever —  a moment when I knew I was on the verge of something bigger than myself.

I’ve been playing well recently after a few discouraging results, and the calendar now turns to the U.S. Open. The U.S. Open is so special, and I’m not even saying that as an American. I just can’t envision a better atmosphere. Half the crowd is drunk and just going nuts in the stands. They’re absolutely loving it. When I faced off against John Isner last year, I could feel how hungry the crowd was for an American success story.

AL Bello/Getty Images

I want to be that guy so badly.

This past year has had me thinking, watching Rafa, watching Federer play so well a decade after I mimicked their moves against a hitting wall. What if someone else from a background like mine sees me on TV? What if they say, Hey, I want to be like Frances Tiafoe!

That’s what I want my story to be.

Because this year, especially, I think I’ve realized: Maybe mine isn’t your normal tennis story. And maybe I’m not your normal tennis player.

But I belong.