Still, the crowd found him. Passersby stopped to thank and congratulate him. The mayor of Greenbelt shook his hand. It was more attention than Frances Tiafoe Sr. ever wanted or expected to receive when he came to the US from Sierra Leone so many years ago. But he wasn’t fazed, he explained with pride.
“Frances stands for a lot of stuff right now,” Tiafoe Sr. said. “He’s standing for where he came from. He’s standing for College Park. He’s standing for America.”
To the crowd gathered in College Park, Tiafoe stood for Prince George’s. He gave them more reason than ever to cheer on a historic run to the US Open semifinals, becoming the first American man to do so since 2006. They gathered to give the county’s newest star a hero’s welcome as Tiafoe returned to the tennis club he grew up in Friday afternoon.
An unlikely tennis prodigy
A line of tennis players and fans, some newly converted after the US Open catapulted Tiafoe’s stardom, snaked around the JTCC’s courtyard to wait for autographs and photos on what county leaders had declared ‘Frances Tiafoe Day’. The bright greens and blues of the Sierra Leonean flag waved from the bleachers as the crowd gathered at the club’s center court to hear Tiafoe speak. When he took the microphone, the three syllable chant that just a week ago echoed through Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York broke out once more: “Ti — Ah — Foe!”
“It takes a village,” he said. “Without this place, you guys probably wouldn’t know who Frances Tiafoe is.”
Home in Prince George’s, to Tiafoe, is still Kenilworth Avenue, the leafy Hyattsville street where he grew up. His whole world used to span just Hyattsville and College Park; pickup games of baseball and basketball just across the Anacostia River at Riverdale Park, and nights spent with his father at the JTCC, where Tiafoe Sr. lived and worked as a maintenance man, earning his son a free spot in the club’s beginner lessons.
Across the county, Tiafoe knows his profile is much larger now.
“It really hits home,” Tiafoe said in an interview with The Washington Post. “A lot of people grew up in Prince George’s County in low-income areas. To do something great and change the whole mind-set of the community … I think we can do a lot of special things here.”
In the line for autographs, Ethan Massay, 9, talked excitedly with his father, Phillip, about Tiafoe’s game. He’s an inspiration for Massay, who is taking lessons with Misha Kouznetsov, Tiafoe’s former coach.
Massay and his father raved about Tiafoe’s volleys and drop shots from the net — “That’s what coach Misha tells me to do,” he said.
“I’m not even into tennis,” said Aina Horton, who was also in line. “But once I heard we have a local from Prince George’s County, and he’s also from Sierra Leone, that got me super excited.”
Tiafoe’s success electrified a tight Sierra Leonean community in Prince George’s, said Horton, now a fan of Tiafoe and tennis (though she is still picking up the rules. She connected instantly with Tiafoe.
“Humble beginnings, [his] parents came here as immigrants, focused and dedicated to tennis since he was three … that just says a lot,” Horton said.
Tiafoe was soft-spoken Friday and is still grappling, he admitted, with the surreal two weeks he’s had. As reporters reminded him, he stands at a changing of the guard in the tennis world after the retirements of Serena Williams and Roger Federer; the tennis scene is hungry for a new champion. At the US Open, he seemed to carry a sense of responsibility — “I feel I let you down,” he told the New York crowd after his heartbreaking semifinal loss.
Back home he pledged to keep striving — on the court and for Prince George’s.
“I think a lot of people overlook this area,” Tiafoe said. “A lot of people [here] feel like they have something to prove.”
Everyone from athletes to congressmen called in to support him in New York — “that’s the best thing about the DMV area,” Tiafoe said, “we really get behind each other” — and it was surreal to think that he could be an example for kids in the county, like fellow Prince Georgian Kevin Durant was for him.
After helping lift his son to the top of American tennis, Tiafoe Sr. wants to turn his attention to helping Prince George’s youth, too. He’s thinking about going out and holding fundraisers, he said. But not before enjoying today. On the back porch of the JTCC, he exhaled.
“You see that window over there?” he said, pointing along the brick wall of the clubhouse. “I lived in that room for 16 years.”
“I did not work in vain,” he said.