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Frances Tiafoe is still waiting for LeBron James to text him. It’s going to happen. Tiafoe feels sure of it.
“Trying to get that figured out,” he says with a smile on a recent afternoon at the Octagon sports agency headquarters in McLean.
It’s a fair expectation for the NBA fanatic and 21-year-old Hyattsville native. At the Australian Open, where he reached a career-best Grand Slam quarterfinal, Tiafoe treated the crowd to celebrations inspired by his basketball idol.
After defeating fifth seed Kevin Anderson in the second round, Tiafoe rolled up his sleeves, flexed his right arm, and slapped his bicep with his left hand. The fans roared with approval. Moments after winning his next match, he took off his shirt and did James’ signature celebration, “The Silencer,” and then screamed, “How bad you fucking want it!?”
ESPN posted a split-screen Instagram video of James and Tiafoe doing the celebration, which caught the attention of the Lakers superstar. He responded on the post, “‘The Silencer’ ????
“I would love to meet him one day,” Tiafoe told reporters after his quarterfinal loss to Rafael Nadal. “That would mean the world to me. I think just kind of talk, pick his brain, see everything he’s accomplished. Just on and off the court, to be just half the guy he is would be unbelievable. I look up to him with everything. He’s a true role model.”
Tiafoe’s post-win shows of emotion are rare in a sport known for its adherence to tradition and decorum. But Tiafoe knows no other way. The bigger the stage, the more he embraces it.
“I think that was the most fun,” he says of the celebrations. “That definitely got a ton of buzz.”
Life is moving fast for Tiafoe, who now lives in Orlando. His father, Frances Sr., and his twin brother, Franklin, live there too. A few years ago, he bought his mother, Alphina, a house in Beltsville.
After beating Grigor Dimitrov in the round of 16 on his birthday, Tiafoe wiped his eyes and began to cry when asked by the on-court interviewer what the moment meant to him.
“It means the world. I worked my ass off man,” he replied, holding back tears. “Yeah, like, I told my parents 10 years ago I was gonna be a pro. I was gonna do this. I was gonna change their lives and my life. Now I’m in the quarters in a slam at 21 now. I can’t believe it man.”
Tiafoe doesn’t shy away from the hype and expectations. He’s always known that he was playing for something bigger.
In the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, he played Nadal at Rod Laver Arena, which has a capacity of 14,820. In 2017, he pushed Roger Federer to five sets at Arthur Ashe Stadium (capacity: 23,771) in the first round of the U.S. Open.
“That’s what I want,” Tiafoe says. “That’s why I work. That’s why I wake up every morning. I want to play on the big courts and I want to play on the big courts for many years. I like those priceless moments. It’s easy to play matches there. It’s easy to get hyped for it and people getting pumped for you. That feeling is irreplaceable. I’ve always extremely loved it. I’m more comfortable there than maybe playing on the outside court with two people watching.”
It’s an attribute that has made Tiafoe unique, even at a young age, says Frank Salazar, Tiafoe’s coach while he trained at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park. Having that mentality is not easily taught. Some players shy away from the pressure. They stop playing their game.
“He goes after his shots,” Salazar says. “He goes after the win. He plays to win. He doesn’t play to lose or hoping to win. On the big stage, he realizes that the only way to win is you gotta take it. He recognizes those moments and that’s a strength in itself that you’re born with … That’s a quality that comes from him and deep down inside him. The bigger the stage, the bigger the moment, the better he plays, because he understands he has to raise his game.”
Tiafoe is ranked a career high No. 30 in the world and will defend his Delray Beach Open title next week in Florida, at the site of his first ATP title.
He’ll likely be greeted by new fans who tuned into his run at Melbourne. And the basketball-inspired celebrations? Expect those too. Although he won’t disclose what they will be quite yet.
“Kick back and watch,” Tiafoe laughs. “It’s going to be fun.”