Frances Tiafoe of the United States celebrates after winning a point against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the fourth round of the US Open tennis championship, Monday, September 5, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
If you ask me who my favorite tennis player is, I’ll tell you: It’s Frances Tiafoe, the 24-year-old Hyattsville native who beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the US Open yesterday.
Have you ever seen a tennis match? (Is it called “games”? “fights”?) Possibly on TV in a bar, but I can’t be sure. And are Nadal, Tiafoe and the Williams sisters the only tennis players I can name? Absolutely, I will own that. I suspect this could be true for you as well.
So if you, like me, know absolutely nothing about tennis but are nonetheless hoping to see our hometown hero battle his way to the top of the US Open, then you may need a crash course. Fortunately, washingtonianDigital Product Manager at , Jacob Raim, was something of a tennis prodigy in his youth. I spent 12 minutes on the phone with him and emerged as a tennis expert, here is our chat so you can be too.
Ok, first: How do you pronounce “Tiafoe”?
Thank you very much. And what should I know about him?
He is a local boy who has risen through the ranks to become one of the best players in the world. I think he’s 22nd at the moment. To put it into perspective, this is a guy who just became the third American to beat Rafa Nadal, and he’s only 24 years old. There’s been a shortage of talent among American men, and this guy looks like he really could be something.
What should we know about Tiafoe’s biography?
He grew up playing at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, which is an elite tennis center in the area. Her father was a maintenance man there, and [the facility] he gave her a key and told her she could stay for free in a spare office with Tiafoe and his twin brother during the week while the boys trained. So they slept on the premises. Basically, she forced him to play tennis while he was growing up there. But Tiafoe has been on tour since he was 17, so he’s been on tour for seven years now.
Has he been a rising star for all that time?
More or less… it’s had its ups and downs. Certainly, she’s been on the rise, but I don’t think it’s been, like, easy or rockets or anything. It wasn’t clear that this was going to happen, but it’s fair to say that she is now on a rising star trajectory.
And what is so special about this US Open in particular?
Well, maybe I’m seeing the beginning of the end of the “big three” era: in the last 20 years, there have only been a couple of quarter-finals that didn’t feature [Novak] djokovic, [Roger] Federer or Nadal. Now we have a lot of very good and very young players who aspire to make their mark. And you have many personalities. You have Nick Kyrgios, who is Australian and, in my opinion, he is extraordinarily nasty: he is a hothead on the pitch and he has some nasty accusations against him. there are [Carlos] Alcaraz, who may be the most talented guy in the world right now, and young players like Ruud, Berrettini, Rublev and Sinner, who are vying to become household names. It’s a new crop of players that the world is about to meet.
Fun! So what are some obscure tennis terms one could use to make it look like they know tennis?
I have a good one: “I can’t believe Tiafoe beat Rafa Nadal, he totally swept the whole match.”
So when someone is playing like a tree, they’re playing out of their mind above their level, like they’re in the zone.
[Jacob later Slacks a few more: “hook” (when somebody intentionally makes a bad call against you), “tweener” (to hit a shot between your legs), and “bagel” (to beat a player 6-0 in a set).]
Okay, and just to clarify, why should we trust your tennis experience?
I played on the junior tennis circuit growing up in the Mid-Atlantic and then played Division Three college tennis at Carleton College. And I coached tennis in high school after college.
Quick digression: Tiafoe is an identical twin and you are the father of identical twins. Are twins creepy? What should we know about twins?
Before we found out that our twins were identical, my wife and I said, “Thank God they’re not identical; identical twins are so creepy.” And then at our next ultrasound, the sonographer said, “Oh, by the way, your twins are actually identical.” And we were like, “Oh shit.”
Are they creepy?
my twins? No, they are adorable.
Oh God. So what’s next for Tiafoe?
Tomorrow he will play the quarterfinals of the US Open against Andrey Rublev, who is really good. He is 24, like Tiafoe. He is very young and very fit and will really make Tiafoe work; Tiafoe will once again be a great underdog.
So you have a chance but not a huge one?
He will be less of a loser in this quarter-final match than he was against Nadal: Nadal was a favorite three and a half times. But Tiafoe will still be an underdog the rest of the way at this point. Rublev is the No. 9 seed, and he comfortably beat the No. 7 seed yesterday.
This sounds like an important generational moment in tennis.
I think so. I mean, the last two Americans to beat Nadal retired a decade ago. So this is a huge historic win for Tiafoe. And he’s a great underdog, but he’s playing like crazy at a really high level. The sky is the limit. I think the next matches will test him and it will be a lot of fun to watch.
Well, I hope he “fixes” those matches, is that the right way to put it?