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Frances Tiafoe shares rollercoaster journey to becoming one of tennis's top players


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: So, some say tennis is a metaphor for life, involving anticipation, problem-solving and incredibly hard work.

For 25-year-old Frances Tiafoe, now one of the top 10 players in the world, those were lessons learned early both on and off the court.

I caught up with Tiafoe at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York, as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Woman: ... is no strange feat. Frances Tiafoe, native son, what's good?

Amna Nawaz: Frances Tiafoe's trademark smile is both charming and disarming. But, in battle, a fierce competitor roars to life, propelling Tiafoe to the world's top 10 and a place in tennis history.

Frances Tiafoe Jr., Professional Tennis Player: I'm sure a lot of people have high expectations for me, but I have high expectations for myself.

Amna Nawaz: Those expectations soared after last year's U.S. Open.

Announcer: Even Rafa says, too good.

Amna Nawaz: In the round of 16, Tiafoe took down the number two-seated Rafael Nadal.

Announcer: Frances Tiafoe says, it's my time. And that's it.

Amna Nawaz: Then, in the quarterfinals, beat Andrey Rublev in straight sets, before losing to Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals, making Tiafoe the first American man to make it to the U.S. Open semifinals since Andy Roddick in 2006 and the first Black American man since Arthur Ashe in 1972.

And, this spring, Big Foe, as he's known, became only the third Black American man in history to break into the top 10, following Ashe and James Blake. At this year's Open, the world is expecting big things from Big Foe.

Frances Tiafoe Jr.: I want to approach it like another year somewhere where I just want to do well. I don't want to make it this big ordeal, because, ultimately, I know, when I'm at my best and having fun out there, I can do some special things.

Amna Nawaz: Everyone we talked to describes you as always happy, happy-go-lucky, easygoing, laid back.

But there is this fierce competitor in you that comes out when you play. I wonder how -- how do you balance those two?

Frances Tiafoe Jr.: Yes, I think Frances Tiafoe off the court is a totally different beast, a guy who just likes to enjoy and have fun.

But I know what I'm out there competing for. I'm competing for my family, friends, obviously, myself. I want to achieve great things, the whole DMV area. So, got a lot of people I want to continue to make happy, continue to make proud. And, yes, so that's probably what helps the balance.

Amna Nawaz: Tiafoe knows where he comes from, his 6'2'' frame often draped in hometown jerseys. The Maryland native is proudly DMV-made from the District/Maryland/Virginia area around Washington, D.C.

He went pro at 16, competing in Grand Slams since he was 17. He won his first in Delray Beach, Florida, in 2018, made the quarterfinals at the 2019 Australian Open and again that same year in Miami. But Tiafoe's story, he says, began long before he ever picked up a racket, when his parents, Frances Tiafoe Sr. and Alphina Kamara, fled civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, raising Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, in the U.S.

His father worked in construction, helping to build the U.S. Tennis Association's Junior Tennis Champion Center, or JTCC, in College Park, Maryland, then becoming its custodian. He slept in a spare office. The Tiafoe boys did too a few days every week for over a decade.

It was there Frances Tiafoe first picked up a tennis racket, started training, and launched a career that has already inspired a new generation of fans, fans who gathered in the center his dad helped to build to cheer on Tiafoe during last year's U.S. Open, fans who now see themselves in Tiafoe.

You are only the third American Black man to make it into the top 10. Why haven't there been more?

Frances Tiafoe Jr.: How many people have gotten the op, though, right?

I mean, I think opportunity is everything. I'm a product of it. And how do we make the game more accessible? Obviously, USTA is doing a great job, the NJTLs, and making it more accessible across the country.

But then you also need to have the right coach, a certain amount of passion for the game. How do you have these kids wanting to continue the game at a high level, courts and what have you? So, there's a lot -- a lot goes into it, but, hopefully, there's a lot more than three, right, when I'm done.

You guys gave me the best opportunity in the world to play the game of tennis.

Amna Nawaz: Success, Tiafoe says, is measured by how many you bless. On a recent return to the JTCC, Tiafoe announced a $250,000 fund, seed money to boost tennis education and access in 270 communities across the country, as his mother and father looked on.

Alphina Kamara, Mother of Frances Tiafoe Jr.: It's a wonderful thing for the children, because when they see somebody that grew up in the same facility that they are trying to come to, or whichever facility they are going to, and they see Frances has become what he has become, by the grace of God.

Frances Tiafoe Sr., Father of Frances Tiafoe Jr.: Well, they will learn a lot from this today. They want to be like Frances or better than Frances, so they can not even be like him or more than him.

Billie Jean King, Former U.S. Tennis Champion: He's great, and the crowd loves him. He's got Hollywood in him. He's got that.

Amna Nawaz: He loves the crowd too, right?

Billie Jean King: He loves the crowd.

Amna Nawaz: Tennis legend Billie Jean King says Tiafoe is just what tennis needs.

Billie Jean King: I think the players have to understand we're there for the audience, not the audience is there for us. And great performers know that,when they walk out there, whether there's one person in the audience or it's full, you want them to go home and say, God, that was great.

Amna Nawaz: Tennis great Mary Joe Fernandez, the youngest player ever to win at the U.S. Open, says Tiafoe poised for even bigger things.

Mary Joe Fernandez, Tennis Champion: I love Frances. I don't know anybody that doesn't love Frances. He brings so much entertainment to the game. You really see his enjoyment of the game. And I feel like Frances can compete, he can focus, but he can also entertain, and that's very difficult.

Amna Nawaz: There is a mental fortitude that's unique to tennis, right? You're out there alone. You're competing at the highest level. The pressure is high.

There's a lot of conversation around mental health now in sports more generally, but really in tennis too. And I just wonder how you think about that. You don't seem to struggle with it. But, again, a lot of that stuff, people don't show to the rest of the world.

Frances Tiafoe Jr.: Yes, I think, obviously, it's a tough sport, man. It's a tough sport. You win, it's on you. You lose, it's on you, right?

Traveling the world, a lot of time away from family, a lot of time away from home, dealing with expectations. When you don't get them, you got all these hate messages, people going on you and stuff like that.

Amna Nawaz: Do you read those messages?

Frances Tiafoe Jr.: So, that's the funny thing.

I always tell my girl, I'm not really into that, reading those messages or whatever. For me, I think it's kind of a mind-set thing. I'm not envious of anybody else or whatever. What's meant for me is meant for me. But, ultimately, these people who are sending hate messages, they're going to follow my life anyways, right.

Amna Nawaz: You love the crowd. You feed off the crowd.

People wrote about it last time too. You would hold your arm up and gesture to them and put your hand to your ear and call for them to be louder, which is not normal in tennis culture, right? What do you love about that? What's it feel like when you're out there?

Frances Tiafoe Jr.: I mean, a guy like me would never think he would be able to play and 23,000 people and pack the whole arena up, right, and have them whistling and yelling their name for hours and hours while I'm competing at the highest level.

So I'm just loving that moment. And, again, this is about having fun, and I play better that way.

Amna Nawaz: He may be out on that court alone, but Tiafoe says he is held up by a cast of dozens.

Who's your first call, who's your first text when you need that little moment?

Frances Tiafoe Jr.: Yes, I definitely call both my parents, twin brother, obviously, my girlfriend who I have been with for years. She helps me so much.

But, yes, I have cousin -- I have a big squad, cousins, friends, I mean, a lot of people I like to stay in touch with. So...

Amna Nawaz: You roll deep.

Frances Tiafoe Jr.: I roll deep, yes.

You ready, right? You got the wristband and everything.

Amna Nawaz: With his family and a legion of fans behind him, Tiafoe is laser-focused on the road ahead and enjoying every step along the way.

And our next piece on trailblazers at the U.S. Open features Billie Jean King and her fight for pay equity 50 years ago. That's coming up next week.

And there's more online, including a lightning round with Frances Tiafoe. That is on our Instagram.

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