The long and difficult path to tennis success

03 July 2023

Ahead of The Wimbledon Championships, of which Barclays is the proud Official Banking Partner, Frances Tiafoe – one of the world’s top players – spoke to us about his inspirational experiences in becoming an elite athlete, and his visions for the future.

The route to success as a top tennis player is far from straightforward. There is no guaranteed path, no golden road to glory. Background and privilege might open doors for some but equally, out of hardship often comes desire. In the end, it’s down to talent, motivation and an individual’s dedication to their craft. With a bit of luck thrown in.

Frances Tiafoe, who is set to be one of the stars of this year’s tournament, is not your average tennis player.

Family sacrifices

Tiafoe’s father, Constant Tiafoe, emigrated to the United States in 1993. Better known as Francis Andrews Tiafoe, he was joined three years later by his wife, Alphina, who was fleeing civil war. When Frances was one year old, in 1999, his father worked as a labourer, helping to build the Junior Tennis Champions Centre, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. After its completion, he took a job as a custodian of the centre and lived on site, with Frances and his twin brother Franklin in tow.

His father arranged for his sons to have lessons for free – they could not have afforded them otherwise – and Tiafoe soon caught the attention of the coaches, who loved his ability and his willingness to work.

Seeing what his parents did for them – his mother worked night shifts as a nurse – Tiafoe knew he was fortunate to be playing tennis. And though life in general was tough, the American believes his background was integral to his development.

“The early years were difficult,” Tiafoe says. “We didn’t have much and myself and my family had no experience in the tennis world. But now, looking back I think those difficult times have shaped me into the man and the tennis player I am today.

“My parents have always taught me to be polite, humble, and never take anything for granted. I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am today, I’ve made so many sacrifices, my whole family has, so it’s really rewarding to be in the position I am now. I’m so grateful and I’m going to keep that perspective. It’s what inspires me and what drives me. I want to be an example to the next generation and I want to show them what’s possible, no matter where you start.”

Tough transition from juniors

Tiafoe excelled as a junior. In 2013, he became the youngest ever winner of the world’s premier junior tournament, the Orange Bowl, at just 15. Two years later, after winning the US junior nationals, he was given a wildcard into the main draw at the US Open and many expected him to be America’s next big thing. But as many top juniors find out, making the transition to the main Tour is far from easy. 

“It’s such a long road with so many learnings along the way,” he says. “Being a top junior is no guarantee to make it in the pros. You go from playing the best kids in the world to all of a sudden playing the best adults. They are so much stronger, faster, tougher and have so much more experience at that level. It really takes time to get comfortable with that amount of travel too and with all the pressures that go along with making tennis your career.”

Background key to handling pressure  

A dynamic mover and pure ball-striker, Tiafoe won his first career singles title in 2018, and reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the Australian Open in 2019. But it was three years before he reached another, with a semi-final run at last year’s US Open, and he had to wait until this April to win his second title.  

Handling expectations has not been easy. That’s where Tiafoe draws on his upbringing. 

“There is no easy way to manage the pressure,” he says. “The pressure is constant and it’s forever changing as you make your way up the ranks. I just try to stay grounded and surround myself with family and good people. I dreamed of being in this position, not really ever imagining that it would actually happen. I worked so hard to get here so I want to enjoy every moment. If managing pressure is a part of that, then so be it. I just take it one moment at a time, try to enjoy each moment and see what happens. That’s really all I can do. 

“I think my background and upbringing have shaped me to stay focused and to stay hungry. I don’t want to miss an opportunity, so I see every opportunity as a privilege to take the next step in my journey.” 

Dreaming of Wimbledon  

Tiafoe first played in the main draw at Wimbledon in 2017; in 2022, he achieved his best performance there yet, reaching the fourth round. Just being in the hallowed grounds is a pleasure for Tiafoe; being in the conversation as a possible champion is another level altogether. 

“Wimbledon is everything,” he says. “Growing up when I was a kid hitting against the wall and dreaming, I was always imagining playing at Wimbledon and the US Open. I was making up little matches against myself where I was on Centre Court against one of the modern-day greats.” 

The importance of legacy 

But winning is not everything for Tiafoe. Grand Slam titles, of course, would be great, but whatever he achieves on the court, Tiafoe has bold ambitions off it, too. 

“This is where I hope to have a big impact,” he says. “I hope by doing what I love and (hopefully) continuing to have good results that I can inspire kids that look like me, that are growing up in challenging situations to take up sports, to take up tennis. I want them to have those opportunities and I want tennis to help them and teach them all the great life lessons that it has taught me. 

“My number one goal off court is to give kids and young adults from anywhere, but especially from challenging backgrounds and difficult environments, the opportunities and resources to pursue their dreams. I’m hoping to start my own foundation soon and we’re going to work hard to make that goal a reality and make a real long-lasting impact.” 

Engaging younger tennis fans 

As one of the new breed of players at the top of the men’s game, Tiafoe wants to bring more young people into tennis and encourage a more diverse audience. He believes fans should be allowed to move around and make more noise. 

“I think things are improving but it’s more and more difficult these days to capture people’s attention, especially kids who have so many options for what they watch and what keeps them entertained,” he says. “We need to figure out how to keep them engaged, and how to grow the game at the grass root levels. It’s not an easy balance because I also love and value all the history and traditions that tennis has. We need to pull ideas from other sports and find a good balance between the entertainment factor, the spectacle, the tradition, and the game itself.” 

Arthur Ashe: An inspiration 

If Tiafoe could play with any of the greats from the past, the late Arthur Ashe would be front and centre. The first black man to win Wimbledon, in 1975, and a champion for black rights, Ashe is an inspiration to Tiafoe. This year, coincidentally, will be 60 years since Ashe first played Wimbledon. Tiafoe hopes to leave a similar legacy of his own. 

“Walking onto the Wimbledon courts every year, it’s hard to describe,” he says. “I still can’t quite believe that I made it there. It’s the most historic tournament in the world and I’m always honoured to play a small part in the history being made there.” 


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