DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Before this week, if you’re a casual tennis fan, you probably knew Frances Tiafoe in one of three ways. Winner of the 2013 Orange Bowl, Tiafoe—the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone—has been regarded as one of the most promising young Americans on tour since he turned pro in 2015, when he was just 17. He also took Roger Federer to five sets in the opening round of the 2017 U.S. Open, narrowly falling short in a close fifth set. And there was also that time when Tiafoe’s Challenger Tour match was interrupted by, well—let’s just say it was NSFW.
Tiafoe won his first ATP title on Sunday, beating Peter Gojowczyk 6-1, 6-4 in Delray Beach. Tiafoe, 20, was poised and impressive all week, upsetting his boyhood idol Juan Martin del Potro in the round of 16 in three sets before rallying to knock off fellow Next-Gen-er Hyeon Chung in a marathon quarterfinal that spanned two days because of rain. A few hours after finishing off Chung, Tiafoe stood tall against Denis Shapovalov, who seemed like the favorite to win the tournament entering the semifinals. Tiafoe breezed past Grojowczyk after the German had knocked off Americans John Isner, Reilly Opelka and Steve Johnson in succession.
Tiafoe had won only two matches this season before Delray Beach, but he tweaked his service motion in recent weeks, and it paid off. On several occasions, with his opponent threatening a break, Tiafoe’s first serve dug him out of danger. He aced del Potro 17 times. His groundstrokes are unorthodox and raw, but he plays aggressive, dynamic tennis. There’s something electric about his presence on the court; he seems to possess the spiritual connection between his game and the crowd that’s so rare on tour, even among the world’s best.
“I feel like I’m very different than other tennis players,” Tiafoe said after the match. “I feel like I show emotion when I lose a point. I get real pumped up. I get really excited. I’ve got my own swagger out there. And I feel like it’s good people see something different and that everyone can be their own person and still bring quality tennis.”
With his title in Delray Beach, Tiafoe became the youngest American to win an ATP event since 19-year-old Andy Roddick in 2002—when Tiafoe was just four years old. He’s no Andy Roddick, at least not yet, but Tiafoe is a breath of fresh air for American men’s tennis. Jack Sock, Sam Querrey and John Isner are all really solid players, but Tiafoe has unique potential. His origin story—after fleeing Sierra Leone to Maryland to escape civil war, his father introduced him to the sport while he worked as a custodian at a tennis center—is scripted for Hollywood. (Read this Washington Post story from 2014 on Tiafoe’s upbringing if you haven’t yet.)
It’s too early to say whether Tiafoe will become a top 10 player like Jack Sock or a Grand Slam semifinalist like Sam Querrey, but he’s already more compelling than any young American man on tour since Roddick. Sunday’s title was a milestone, but Tiafoe has long possessed the crossover appeal so rare in tennis players of any nationality in this age.
“I don’t play just for myself and for my family. I just want to have plenty more people play tennis,” he said Sunday. “I think it’s a great sport. You get to travel the world, see plenty of things and really grow as an individual. Obviously it’s a one-on-one sport, so it’s all on you—you’ve got no one really helping you. When you lose, you lose. You can say you have your team, but at the end of the day you’re the one swinging the racket. So it builds character.”
He later added: “Obviously a lot of young black people are playing football or basketball. I would love for them to play tennis. That’s one of my biggest motivations—to get more black people playing tennis.”
Tennis is a niche sport in America, and only a few players—Serena, Federer, Nadal—have transcended the game to enter the broader public consciousness. Tiafoe isn’t there yet, of course—not even close, and in all likelihood he’ll never obtain that sort of legendary status. He could very well reach the top 50 this season, but it seems unlikely that he’ll seriously contend for majors in the short term. But his tremendous potential is starting to show. If his performance in Delray was any indication, Tiafoe’s much-hyped bright future might not be so far in the distance.
“He can go as far as he wants. Because right now he’s playing extremely good tennis. I don’t think there’s anything going to stop him right now,” his father, Constant Tiafoe, said after the match. “This kid went five sets with Federer.”