News & Politics

How to Get on the Frances Tiafoe Bandwagon

A non-tennis-fan's guide to cheering on the Hyattsville-born hometown hero who just beat Nadal.

Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, celebrates after winning a point against Rafael Nadal, of Spain, during the fourth round of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Monday, September 5, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

If you ask who my favorite tennis player is, I will 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 I ever watched a tennis game? (Are they called “matches”? “feuds”?) Potentially on TV at a bar, but I couldn’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 might be true of you, too.

So if you, like me, know absolutely nothing about tennis but nonetheless hope to watch our hometown hero rampage his way to the top of the US Open, then you might need a crash course. Luckily, Washingtonian’s director of digital products, Jacob Raim, was something of a tennis prodigy in his youth. I spent 12 minutes on the phone with him and emerged an expert on tennis—here’s our chat so that you can be, too.

Okay, first off: How do you pronounce “Tiafoe”?


Great, thanks. And what should I know about him?

He’s a local kid who has risen up through the ranks to be one of the best players in the world. I think he’s ranked 22nd right now. To put it in perspective, this is a guy who just became the third American ever to beat Rafa Nadal, and he’s only 24. There’s been a dearth of talent amongst American men, and this guy looks like he could really 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. His father was a maintenance man there, and [the facility] gave him a key and told him he could stay for free in a spare office with Tiafoe and his twin brother during the week while the boys trained. So they slept at the facility. It basically forced tennis on him growing up there. But Tiafoe has been on tour since he was 17 years old, so he’s been on tour for seven years now.

Has he been a rising star throughout that time?

Sort of—he’s had his ups and downs. Certainly, he’s been on the rise, but I don’t think it’s been, like, easy or rocketships or anything. It wasn’t clear this was going to happen, but it’s fair to say he’s on a rising star trajectory now.

And what is special about this particular US Open?

Well, you are maybe seeing the beginning of the end of the “big three” era—in the last 20 years, there have only been a couple of quarterfinals that did not feature [Novak] Djokovic, [Roger] Federer, or Nadal. Now we have a lot of really good, really young players who are aiming to make their mark. And you’ve got a lot of personalities. You’ve got Nick Kyrgios, who’s Australian and is, in my opinion, extraordinarily unlikable—he’s a hothead on the court and has some unpleasant allegations against him. There’s [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 are all vying to become household names. It’s a new crop of players that the world is about to learn about.

Fun! So what are some obscure tennis terms that one might throw around to seem like they know about tennis?

I’ve got a good one: “I can’t believe that Tiafoe beat Rafa Nadal, he totally tree’d that whole match.”


So when someone is playing like a tree, they are playing out of their mind above their level, like just 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 expertise? 

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 high school tennis 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 knew our twins were identical, my wife and I both said, “Thank god they’re not identical; identical twins are so creepy.” And then at our next sonogram, the sonographer was like, “Oh, by the way, your twins are actually identical.” And we were like, “Oh shit.”

Are they creepy? 

My twins? No, they’re adorable.

Oh good. So what’s next for Tiafoe?

He’s gonna play in the quarterfinals of the US Open tomorrow against Andrey Rublev, who is really good. He’s 24, like Tiafoe. He’s very young and very fit and is going to really make Tiafoe work—Tiafoe will be a big underdog again.

So he has a shot but not a huge one?

He’ll be less of an underdog in this quarterfinals match than he was against Nadal—Nadal was a three-and-a-half-times favorite. But Tiafoe will still be an underdog the rest of the way at this point. Rublev is the No. 9 seed, and he just beat the No. 7 seed handily yesterday.

This sounds like kind of an important generational moment in tennis.

I think so. I mean, the last two Americans that beat Nadal have both been retired for a decade. So this is a pretty big historical win for Tiafoe. And he’s a huge underdog, but he’s playing out of his mind at a really high level. The sky’s the limit. I think that the next few matches are going to test him and it’s gonna be really fun to watch.

Well, I hope he “trees” those matches, is that the correct way to say it?

Close enough.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer