ATP Tour

EXCLUSIVE | PART 2: Frances Tiafoe chats to Sport24

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Frances Tiafoe. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Frances Tiafoe. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
  • Frances Tiafoe, who bowed out in the Round of 16 at the Miami Open, talks about why he is a person first and a tennis player second and the off-court initiatives that he’s planning.
  • The born entertainer, who teamed up with Nick Kyrgios last year, unpacks why he believes that the Australian is “good for the game” and who his dream doubles partner would be.
  • He also reveals the sentiment behind his shirt-ripping celebration, in which he pays homage to a basketball star, and shares his views on the GOAT debate in the men’s game.

Sport24 asked: What did it mean to win the Arthur Ashe award in 2020?

Frances Tiafoe: Winning the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award was really big and I was extremely happy about it. The day I won it I was with my girlfriend Ayan Broomfield (who is a fellow professional tennis player). At the time she said to me, “What are you going to do with such a big platform? You need to speak out and this is the time to do it.” I was trying to figure out what we could do to push the message forward. We both came up with the idea of a video after what happened with Michael Brown. We wanted to do a small gesture to spread awareness of the unjust deaths of many African American citizens. (In the video, Tiafoe and Broomfield put their rackets down and hands up - signalling not to shoot - along with other tennis personalities past and present). The video (which includes the likes of Serena Williams, James Blake, Naomi Osaka and Katrina Adams) got plenty of traction and a lot of love. For me, that’s what it’s about. It’s nice when everyone is on the same page and is supportive of each other. For me, it’s about trying to uplift the people on your right and left no matter what they look like. In terms of future initiatives, I want to work on representation and help the next generation because that’s what it’s about. We are only here for a certain time and our job is to use our platform to help the generation behind us. Starting a foundation and talking to schools is the way to go because being in front of guys that can relate to you can help spread your message. As someone in my position, I can understand what young African Americans are going through and can help them and expose them to certain things they wouldn’t necessarily see. A lot of them only see what’s in front of them and that’s why I feel we are so short-minded as a black culture and community. We are seeing certain things every day and we think that’s what life is. If you take somebody out of that (world) you can show them there is more to life.

READ | PART 1: American tennis ace talks about collaboration with SA great Wayne Ferreira

Sport24 asked: Why are you a person first and a tennis player second?

Frances Tiafoe: It’s because who you are is so much more important than what you do. I say it all the time - I don’t just want to be known as a good tennis player. When I retire after the next however many years of playing there will be so many great tennis players who have come and gone. But when all is said and done, what kind of person are you? The questions I would want to be asked are: Are you a genuine dude and are you giving back? I feel like people really remember that. It’s just like anything - you want to be proud of yourself in a certain way. Just because you did something at a high level doesn’t mean you are superior or matter anymore than the person to the left or right of you. Everyone has their own hard work and struggles they go through so I always try to be the same individual. Reflecting on my journey, I think it’s great. (Tiafoe slept at the tennis centre in Maryland and taught himself to play the sport). It’s pretty insane when you really think about it. And it’s crazy because there is still a lot more to go and more to achieve. I got to a point where I was really comfortable with it and inside different circumstances I was even doing really well. I had a lot coming at me at one time and I got complacent. But I want to see how far it can go. Right now I’m in a really curious part of my life. I’m really committing myself and seeing where I can go with this thing and anticipating how good the book is going to be at the end. Four years since winning the Delray Beach Open, I’ve probably matured much more mentally. Back then I was very raw and my thought process was kind of like: “Just go get it!” It was thoughtless and very instinctive. Whereas now, I understand what I’m doing much more and I’m no longer the guy who is wide-eyed and just doing stuff. I still have a little bit of that but I’ve definitely grown a lot as a person and mentally as a player.

Sport24 asked: Your thoughts on Nick Kyrgios, who divides opinion?

Frances Tiafoe: Me and Nick are definitely great friends. (The pair most recently played a doubles tournament together at the 2021 Washington Open). I tell Nick all the time that when he’s locked in he’s great for the game. When he brings it he’s great and other times definitely not so much. (Kyrgios smashed a racket and hurled abuse at the umpire in his Miami Open Round of 16 defeat to Jannik Sinner). I believe Nick’s good for the game man and, like him or not, you’re going to come watch because you don’t know what he’s going to do and sometimes I don’t think he does either! I’ve been liking the way he’s been playing lately and see him making another push (up the ATP singles rankings ladder). I’m just happy for him that he seems happy out there and wanting to bring his best stuff. Nick and I played doubles together in DC last year but him and Thanasi Kokkinakis are definitely locked in right now (having won the Australian Open Men’s doubles) so we’ll see when we play together again. In terms of a dream doubles partner, I definitely still want to play with Gael Monfils or Jo Tsonga before they stop. It would be super cool and think people would want to watch.

Sport24 asked: What’s the story behind your shirt-ripping celebration?

Frances Tiafoe: The celebration stems from LeBron James who is my favourite athlete of all time. I have seen him do some great celebrations in that way so I’m mainly doing it for him. He is one of my biggest inspirations and I know I’m one of his biggest fans. But ultimately it’s more about my passion for the game and life. The celebration is about me saying to myself: “Man, you came through so much!” It’s an honour to play in front of packed stadiums and win big matches and my celebration is about showing the fans how much it means to me. I don’t take any moments for granted and whether I’m playing on the Rod Laver Arena or on Arthur Ashe at the US Open at night, it’s really special to me. For me, it’s about putting on a show, battling with my opponent and if I come out on the other side of that it (the shirt-rip) is an expression of what that really means to me. I just want to let everyone know that playing the sport definitely means the world to me and I really appreciate it.

Sport24 asked: Where do you stand on the GOAT debate in the game?

Frances Tiafoe: I probably have a two-part answer to it. It’s hard right to choose between Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic because they have had such great success. If Rafa wins the French Open this year then he has won as many slams in one slam (14) as Pete Sampras won his whole career which is nuts. It’s crazy because he’s won at least twice in all the other slams but then Novak has got way more weeks as number one than him. For a while there it was still Roger but now you’ve got to look and say Rafa is the best ever! But it’s hard man and it’s like picking your poison because it’s honestly whoever you feel you like. I struggle with the GOAT topic in general because I feel like it takes away from the appreciation of all three of them. I feel like we should be having a conversation where we say we’re able to play in the best era of tennis rather than comparing who is better. It kills that a little bit and is almost like the Michael Jordan vs LeBron thing. Who really cares who is the GOAT because they are great for the sport. It’s about appreciating them for who they are.

Sport24 asked: Are you looking forward to Roland Garros in May?

Frances Tiafoe: Yeah, I think I have a great record at the French Open - it’s 0 and 6! (Tiafoe has been knocked out in the first round each time he’s played). This year, I’m kind of going in with a different mindset and if I win my first round match I’ll probably act like I’ve won a grand slam (laughs). That record is crazy cos I actually do like playing on clay. I haven’t quite figured out Roland Garros yet and every year it’s been a quick stay in Paris. But this year, I will be a bit more patient and not rush the points. It’s about staying with your opponents and you may have to hit three, four or five great shots to win a point. I understand that and am also much fitter now to make that happen this time around.

Previous interviews:

Marc Pritzen

Vlok Cilliers

Dion O'Cuinneagain

Scott Spedding

Nic Groom

Dane van Niekerk

Dave Nosworthy

Swys de Bruin

Brett Schultz

Percy Montgomery

Alan Solomons

Josh Strauss

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