How to Get on the DMV Tennis Star’s Bandwagon – Washingtonian

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

If you ask who my favorite tennis player is, I’ll answer 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 match? (Are they called “matches”? “Fids”?) Potentially on TV in 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 it. I suspect this could be true for you too.

So if, like me, you know absolutely nothing about tennis but still hope to see our hometown hero go wild all the way to the top of the US Open, you might need a crash course. Fortunately, 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 became a tennis expert. Here’s our conversation so you can be too.

Okay, first of all: how do you pronounce “Tiafoe”?

Tee-AH-enemy.

Big thanks. And what should I know about him?

He’s a local kid who rose through the ranks to become one of the best players in the world. I think he’s ranked 22nd right now. To put it into perspective, he’s a guy who just became the third American to beat Rafa Nadal, and he’s only 24 years old. There’s been a talent shortage among 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 facility in the area. His father was a maintenance man there and [the facility] gave him a key and told him he could stay in a spare office with Tiafoe and her twin brother for free during the week while the boys practiced. So they slept at the establishment. It forced him to grow 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 throughout this period?

In a way, he had his ups and downs. Granted, he’s on the rise, but I don’t think it’s been, like, easy or rockets or anything. It wasn’t clear that was going to happen, but it’s fair to say he’s now on a rising star course.

And what is the particularity of this US Open in particular?

Well, you may be seeing the beginning of the end of the ‘big three’ era – in the last 20 years there have only been a few quarter-finals that haven’t featured [Novak] Djokovic, [Roger] Federer or Nadal. Now we have a lot of very good, very young players who are aiming to make their mark. And you have many personalities. You have Nick Kyrgios, who is Australian and who I think is extraordinarily unfriendly – he is a hothead on the pitch and he has some unpleasant allegations against him. There are [Carlos] Alcaraz, who is possibly the most talented guy in the world right now, and young players like Ruud, Berrettini, Rublev and Sinner who are all vying to become household names. It’s a new generation of players that the world is about to learn.

Fun! So what are some obscure tennis terms one could throw around to make it sound like they know tennis?

I have a good one: “I can’t believe Tiafoe beat Rafa Nadal, he totally missed the whole game.”

“Treed”?

So when someone is playing as 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).]

Ok, and just to clarify, why should we trust your tennis expertise?

I played on the junior tennis circuit growing up in mid-Atlantic and then played division three varsity 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 scary? What should we know about twins?

Before we knew our twins were identical, my wife and I said, “Thank God they’re not identical; identical twins are so scary. And then on our next ultrasound, the sonographer said, “Oh, by the way, your twins are actually identical.” And we were like, “Oh shit.”

Are they scary?

My twins? No, they are adorable.

Oh good. So what’s next for Tiafoe?

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

So he has a shot but not huge?

He will be less of an underdog in this quarter-final game than he was against Nadal – Nadal was a three-and-a-half-time favourite. But Tiafoe will still be an underdog the rest of the way at this point. Rublev is the No. 9 seed, and he just easily beat the No. 7 seed yesterday.

It looks like an important generational moment in tennis.

I think so. I mean, the last two Americans who beat Nadal have both been retired for a decade. So it’s a pretty big historic victory for Tiafoe. And he’s a huge underdog, but he’s playing at a very high level. Sky is the limit. I think the next games are going to test it and it’s going to be really fun to watch.

Well, I hope he “sports” these matches, is that the right way to put it?

Close enough.


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