The American tennis star is making a big impact in Africa

FREETOWN – Last year, Sam Jalloh zigzagged across West Africa to coach children in tennis, taking with him rackets, balls and a mobile phone laden with photos and videos of a professional player in action to inspire young people.

The player? Frances Tiafoe.

This decision to encourage young Africans by showing them images of Tiafoe, an American of Sierra Leonean origin, paid off. Jalloh’s phone rang and rang this week with text messages from many children, delighted by Tiafoe, 24 amazing race in the semi-finals of the US Open, where he beat Rafael Nadal along the way.

“They say, ‘Coach, have you seen Frances? This is really good.’ When these things happen . . . you can see it motivates the kids,” Jalloh said. “They’re very, very excited and it’s not just the kids from Sierra Leone. , children from Ghana, children from Nigeria. It will bring them a lot more inspiration.”

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Tiafoe was born in the United States to parents who emigrated from Sierra Leone – also Jalloh’s home country – and while Tiafoe offers new hope for the future of American tennis, the African bond made him an ideal role model for Jalloh even before that US Open breakthrough where he advanced to Friday’s semi-finals before losing in five sets to Carlos Alcaraz.

Tiafoe’s parents, Frances Sr. and Alphina, struggled when they arrived in the United States. Frances Sr. worked as a laborer and then janitor at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland. Alphina worked long night shifts as a nurse. Frances Jr. and her twin brother, Franklin, were born in Maryland and lived for much of the first 10 years of their lives in a converted office at the tennis center.

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With that backstory, Jalloh got to see West African kids making a “connection” with Tiafoe, though he also showed them clips of 22-time Grand Slam singles champion Nadal and other top players.

“It inspires them to keep going and be great at tennis or whatever they aspire to be,” Jalloh said. He thinks the Tiafoe effect in Africa “will continue for a long time”.

Jalloh insists that tennis is more popular than many realize in West Africa. He’s seen enough courts in enough towns and cities and enough young hopefuls to make that claim.

Some of the courts he is trained on are carefully marked out and surrounded by fences. Many are not. Jalloh used everything he found. Some are little more than cracked strips of concrete between houses in poor inner-city neighborhoods. Others are flat stretches of land carved out of the wilderness outside of the city.

It is here that Jalloh hopes Tiafoe’s emotional performance at Flushing Meadows will spark something in the West African tennis authorities as well as in his young players.

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“Once we have the organization and the passionate people, you will see a lot of talent coming from Africa,” Jalloh said.

There were positive signs in Sierra Leone last week. The national media, which normally only has eyes for football, took notice of the tennis and Tiafoe received plenty of praise.

Fatima Bio, wife of Sierra Leonean President Julius Bio, posted on her Facebook page about Tiafoe: “You are such an amazing guy and I want you to know we celebrate you at home.” Former Sierra Leone football captain Kai Kamara called Tiafoe “one of us” and said the country is behind him.

Jalloh became aware of Tiafoe when he won the prestigious junior Orange Bowl tournament in Miami at the age of 15. Jalloh wanted to know more about the young Sierra Leonean-born talent and eventually became good friends with Tiafoe’s father. They talk on the phone often, Jalloh said, and were in touch this week as Frances Jr. led the way at the US Open.

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It also invigorated Jalloh, whose own life story is quite extraordinary.

Jalloh was born in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, one of 11 children and his parents adopted him when he was 6 years old because they couldn’t afford to keep him. He ran away from his adoptive family and lived on the streets of Freetown before reuniting with his mother.

He then found tennis and went from playing on the street with his hand, then with homemade wooden bats, to being a national tennis player in Sierra Leone, which earned him $250 and a tracksuit. team, his “biggest dream”, he said.

He now coaches players on the professional circuit from his home in England and is already planning his next coaching trip to Africa. He aims to travel to Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa at the end of the year and return to West Africa in early 2023, he said, with his tennis equipment and many new music videos from Tiafoe.

“Oh yes, I have so many things now. I will have a lot to show the children,” Jalloh said.

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Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa.

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