Loaded with a hoodie with ‘GOAT’ emblazoned across the front, the bold letters each depicting a different black and white image of Serena Williams, Frances Tiafoe was asked what Serena means to him.
“She [is] definitely the reason why I think I can do the things I do,” he told an ESPN panel this week, sitting on his set at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. “When I’m younger, the reason I told my dad I could be a professional tennis player is when I see her and Venus fighting each other. [It was] like, “Well, damn, two people who look like me and I can go do it, that’s incredible.” [Serena] changed the game forever.”
In the days before and since Serena lost in the third round of the US Open to Ajla Tomljanovic in a match that showed the 40-year-old queen of the courts could still hang with the younger set, people inside and outside professional tennis have been discussing the impact the Williams sisters had on them.
Their greatness — between them they hold 30 Grand Slams and two Olympic singles titles, and together they’ve won 14 Grand Slam doubles crowns and three other Olympic golds — is such that men and women, in tennis and in all sports, admire their success, longevity and history.
But the Williams sisters were especially influential for black people. It was not just that their father, who had no background in the sport, decided to be their first coach, and he wasn’t just that they spent their early years practicing in fields near their home in Compton, California, at the height of the city’s violence. It was that Richard Williams’ sport of choice for his daughters, tennis, had spent decades doing everything he could to keep blacks out of his tournaments and the exclusive realm of well-to-do whites playing in their private, segregated clubs. .
The American Tennis Association had been founded in 1916, one of many organizations intended to give African Americans a way to play and compete for championships. Apart from occasional outliers such as Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, MaliVai Washington or Chanda Rubin, the highest-level players from the United States were almost exclusively white.
Until the Williams sisters.
Serena and Venus have done for tennis what Tiger Woods supposedly did for golf, the other US cross country sport. When Woods began his rise, it was easy to think that we would see a generation of Black players follow him, inspired by watching Woods pick up major leagues at an incredible rate. But that hasn’t happened.
For more than a decade after Woods’ first Masters victory in 1997, he remained the only black player on the PGA Tour. Even now, Cameron Champ is the only other player of black heritage to win on Tour, and at this year’s Masters there were only three black players among the 90 men in the Masters field: Woods, Champ and Harold Varner III.
By contrast, tennis has Tiafoe, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka (who has lived in the US for years but represents Japan in international games), who cited the Williams sisters as the reason they got into the game . tennis, the reason they believed they could move up in the sport.
They saw Aphrodite and Serena, their braids and brown skin, lifting silver plates and gilded cups on the center courts and they knew: if they could do it, so could I.
As the tennis-watching world is now learning, Tiafoe’s rise is almost as unlikely as the Williamses’.
His parents immigrated separately from Sierra Leone during the brutal civil war in the 1990s and met outside Washington, D.C. Francis and his twin brother, Franklin, were born in 1998. A year later, Father Constant was a member of the construction crew of the Junior Tennis Center of Champions in College Park, Maryland. When JTCC was completed, Constant was hired as head janitor for the facility. Since mom Alphina worked night shifts in nursing, when Constant needed extra hours for more money, he and the boys often slept on massage tables in an extra office at JTCC.
A young coach at JTCC, Misha Kouznetsov, took note of Tiafoe when Tiafoe was 8 years old. The way he listened, his effort level, his love for the sport. Kuznetsov entered Tiafoe at his first tournament, paying the fee and buying him a new pair of shoes and shirt. When he was 15, Tiafoe became the youngest player to win the Orange Bowl, a prestigious international tournament for boys 18 and under.
Still only 24, he broke into the top 30 in the men’s ATP rankings in April and is currently ranked 26th. On Friday, 22nd-ranked Tiafoe will play third-seeded Carlos Alcaraz in the US Open semifinals, the furthest he has qualified for a Grand Slam. He beat four-time Open champion Rafa Nadal in four sets in the fourth round and then Andrei Rublev in straight sets in the quarters.
It’s been a long time since an American went that far in America’s marquee tournament (Andy Roddick, 2006), and even longer since a black man did it (Ashe, 1972).
Tiafoe knows that history but isn’t worried about it, saying this week, “I want to win for me.”
But he also knows that just as Venus and Serena did for him, his success will inspire others to play tennis, such as other black kids.
“That’s why I’m out here trying pretty hard,” he said.