U.S. tennis star Frances Tiafoe speaks about supporting HBCU athletics, being friends with the Williams sisters, and being back in D.C. for the Citi Open.
When Frances Tiafoe was eleven years old, he cried as he watched Juan Martín del Potro win the US Open.
del Potro was Tiafoe’s favorite tennis player growing up. Whether it was more because del Potro made history in a time when no one outside of the Big Three was winning majors — or because del Potro was the first to sign a tennis ball for Tiafoe — wasn’t important, because del Potro represented something to young tennis players like Tiafoe.
In a sport when titans can dominate the clay for decades, del Potro showed Tiafoe what was possible. He also took a moment to acknowledge a young Tiafoe, who had lofty tennis dreams of his own, by signing a souvenir that Frances would cherish for life.
Today, Tiafoe’s is in del Potro’s shoes. Not only because del Potro retired this February and Tiafoe is currently ranked No. 24 in ATP men’s singles, but because Frances Tiafoe is now signing tennis balls for the next generation of DMV greats.
Tiafoe works with the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF) year-round, but as he prepared to compete in the 2022 CIti Open, Frances took some time to get back to basics as he taught young tennis players the fundamentals of the game at the 2022 WTEF Clinic.
Citi wasn’t just sponsoring a professional tennis tournament this year: the company was also busy endorsing tennis players playing at HBCUs. Throughout collegiate sports, there has been a major push to support athletic programs at HBCUs, with top recruits committing to these programs while active and retired professional athletes join in support as well. In the NFL, Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner famously wore HBCU sweatshirts during press conferences in 2019. Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders is now the head football coach at Jackson State. And although Frances Tiafoe was already on the pro circuit at 17, he too supports the mission of HBCUs.
So does Citi. The clinic offered young players the chance to be coached by Tiafoe, Morgan State’s head coach Matthew Townes, local HBCU tennis players, and WTEF coaches. During the Citi Open, the bank designated a $10,000 grant to put towards education at an HBCU.
“At Citi, we’re always looking for ways to provide HBCU students with the helpful tools on their path to professional success and to celebrate their accomplishments,” said Kristin Solheim, the director of Citigroup Government Affairs. “We’re thrilled to be hosting this clinic with WTEF and support them as their organization awards one deserving student a $10,000 grant to attend an HBCU. We continue to use our partnerships in sports and entertainment to move that work forward.”
In what Frances describes as his “favorite time of the year” — being back in D.C. at the tournament he grew up idolizing — Tiafoe spoke with FanSided about the importance of the Williams sisters, HBCU athletics, and the integrity of his LeBron-inspired celebration.
I’d love to hear about this partnership with WTEF and Citi.
Yeah, I think that’s an unbelievable grant. Giving a grant to kid, to HBCUs, which obviously, we’re all trying to support HBCUs and People of Color at HBCUs. And honestly, top athletes go to HBCUs, [and we want] to give them the platform and recognition. For the city to be able to step up and do that for one of our kids is really special, and I couldn’t be more happy for them.
When you see these kids on the court, what memories of JTCC come back for you?
So many, so many. You’re young, you’re wide-eyed, you don’t even know what life has to offer for you. It’s an honor. I’m super blessed to be able to do what I’m doing right now.
And obviously, they look up to me, but I remember being in their shoes not so long ago. I’m still young, so things can happen fast, especially when you’re having fun. So I just want these kids to be better than they were yesterday and keep staying on that process.
When you talk about kids looking up to you, I imagine when you were growing up, you were looking up to the Williams sisters. There’s so many parallels there of you and your brother playing tennis.
Flash forward to today, and your girlfriend played as Venus in “King Richard,” and then I saw you hanging out with them at the movie premiere. What does their story mean to you to this day?
I think they’re just icons in general — I think they have so much crossover. To be able to call them friends is crazy. Me and Serena have the same agent now, and honestly, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for them.
I mean, they set such a high precedent. Playing each other at Grand Slam Finals and their whole story, it’s… There were a lot of relatable situations. They built something to make me feel like it is possible, and now, I’m living up to it.
If I can ever even have my name in the same sentence as those two, I would say I had a pretty damn good career.
I know that you also want to inspire the next generation of Black tennis players, and I know you already are. Can you name a moment from the WTEF camp where you connected with someone who looked up to you?
Yeah, I’m super connected with these guys year-round, so to be able to see some of these guys and remember their names and have a relationship with them and have them so excited to see me, and ‘Oh my God, we were watching you at Wimbledon; we all got up super early to watch,” all these little things, it’s so cool.
And yeah, and then they become long, long-time fans. It’s just an honor. The parents get super excited to see me; I’m locked in with everybody. When I’m out there competing, it makes me want to give that much more.
Yeah, that’s incredible. You mentioned it being so important to support HBCU programs. Why is it so critical for us to support these programs? And what can professional athletes who are passionate about HBCUs and maybe not alums do to support?
For example, NFL linebacker Bobby Wagner didn’t go to an HBCU, but he has worn HBCU sweatshirts during his press conferences. What can athletes do to support HBCUs?
Yeah, I mean, it’s exactly that. We’re just promoting them; we’re just putting money into them. I think HBCUs have a lot of potential. I mean, predominately black colleges are just so vital because most of our kids are going to end up there. Why can’t that be done at the highest level? Why can’t they get the best facilities, the best education, and become even better people coming out of there?
And I think a lot of our best athletes can go there and make something of themselves. They don’t need — whether they’re in basketball or stuff like that — they don’t need to go to the North Carolinas and stuff like that to become, whether they want to be MJ or LeBron or whatever the case may be. I think that’s where we’re trying to get HBCUs, and if everyone kind of gets behind it, I think we can we can definitely get that.
When Juan Martín del Potro retired in February, you reminisced about watching him at the Citi Open as a kid. So what does it mean to be back in DC for the Citi Open and following in his legacy? And then have you signed any tennis balls today? Are you starting that journey for another young kid?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs] I definitely did.
Yeah, I remember watching him play as a kid and how good that was, and I’m always at the Citi Open. I want to put on a show. I want to have you guys watch me all week and go deep in the event.
Yeah, that’s so exciting. And so speaking of that, what are you looking forward to in your upcoming doubles matches with Alex [de Minaur]?
Yeah, I mean, I’m just ready to go. I’m just ready to go. Just trying to compete as hard as I can and do what I do best.
Definitely. One last question: when Jenson Brooksby started doing your iconic LeBron celebration in Atlanta, what was going through your mind?
He opened up a can of worms that he doesn’t want to quite open, so I’m pretty excited to play him again and do the real one.