Frances Tiafoe has lifted his family through his steady climb up the world rankings since turning pro at age 17, buying his parents a house in Beltsville.
He has raised his own sights, too, after reaching his first Grand Slam quarterfinal last month in Australia. Having vaulted to a career-high No. 30, Tiafoe now believes that a top-20 ranking is possible by year’s end. Maybe top 15.
But Tiafoe’s greatest contribution, when his career on the pro tour is over, may be in helping attract the younger audience that tennis sorely needs to survive in the hypercompetitive sports marketplace.
If so, credit LeBron James with the assist.
Tiafoe, a 21-year-old Hyattsville native, drew well-deserved attention for his skill and toughness in knocking off three higher-ranked players in succession to reach an Australian Open quarterfinal against 17-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, who ousted him in straight sets.
But it was Tiafoe’s “King James”-inspired on-court celebrations after each victory in the run-up — in which he ripped off his shirt, thumped his chest, raised his knees and roared, or hiked up a sleeve to slap a flexed biceps — that entertained so many tennis fans who had flocked to Melbourne for what is known as the “Happy Slam.”
“The fans love it; I love it,” Tiafoe said Tuesday in an interview at the McLean headquarters of Octagon, the global sports agency that represents him. “One hundred percent, I think tennis needs it. Tennis needs some different personalities and a lot more emotions.”
That, ideally, is what the highly touted “Next Gen” cohort in men’s tennis — fast-rising, 21-and-under challengers such as Germany’s Alexander Zverev, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, Australia’s Alex de Minaur, and Tiafoe — will bring to a sport that has been carried the past 15 years by Roger Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, all now in their 30s.
Tiafoe acknowledged that his on-court celebrations aren’t universally embraced by more traditional fans, who may feel that nothing more is warranted after a victory than a wave to the crowd.
But tennis has been Tiafoe’s passion since he first picked up a racket at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center. And his slog of best-of-five-sets victories to reach the Australian Open’s final eight tested him beyond what he imagined possible. So his euphoria at each stage was heartfelt and spontaneous.
“I’m out there competing as hard as I can, and I want [fans] to really feel what I’m doing out there and really know what it truly means to me,” Tiafoe said. “I have a big personality, so it comes easy for me. I just hope that it comes from more guys in the locker room. And I hope fans really gravitate toward it.”
Across nearly every sport, TV ratings are slipping, given the myriad digital alternatives fans now have for following games and matches.
Moreover, many sports are struggling to draw young fans as their traditional TV audience ages, which raises troubling questions about their long-term viability, according to a 2017 study conducted by Magna Global for SportsBusiness Journal. Among its findings: In 2016, the average age of TV viewers for men’s tennis was 61. For the NBA, it was 42; for Major League Soccer, the average age was 40.
What Tiafoe admires so much about James, whom he has never met, isn’t just his dominance on the court. It’s his leadership, character and the charitable work he has done off the court, recently opening a public elementary school to support at-risk youngsters in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
“He is bigger than basketball, with the I Promise school and the example he has set for his teammates,” Tiafoe said. “I’ve got a ton of respect for him; I kind of want to model myself after him. You never hear any problems with him or bad news in the media. He just carries himself like a true professional. And that’s what I value. I want to inspire so many people and give back when I get, hopefully, to that level one day.”
To get there, Tiafoe knows he has far more work to do.
He was floored by the physical toll it took to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals — particularly the four-sets victory over 20th seed Grigor Dimitrov, in which the first two sets alone lasted nearly 2½ hours. “I was definitely hurting,” Tiafoe said, adding quickly that no amount of fitness or conditioning would have enabled him to beat Nadal that day.
With Nadal as his new benchmark, Tiafoe knows he needs a stronger serve and more effective return. He needs to drive his groundstrokes deeper. And he can’t relax on any point during a match against a great player.
“I am striving for that,” he said, “every day.”