Wrapped in a hoodie emblazoned with “GOAT” across the front, the bold letters each with a black-and-white photo of Serena Williams, Frances Tiafoe was asked what Serena has meant to him.
“She [is] definitely the reason I think I can do the things I do,” he told ESPN’s panel this week, sitting on his set at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. “When I is younger, is the reason why I told my dad I could be a professional tennis player and watching her and Venus battle each other. [It was] like, ‘Well, hell, two people who look like me and I can go and do that, it’s incredible.’ [Serena] changed the game forever.”
In the days before and since Serena lost in the third round of the US Open to Ajla Tomljanovic in a match that showed the 40-year-old queen of the courts could still hang with the younger set, people have been in and out of professional tennis discussed the influence the Williams sisters have had on them.
Their greatness – between them they have 30 Grand Slams and two Olympic singles titles and won a combined 14 Grand Slams doubles crowns and three more Olympic golds – is such that men and women, across tennis and all sports, marvel at their success, longevity and background.
But the Williams sisters have been particularly influential for black people. It wasn’t just that their father, who had no background in the sport, decided to be their first coach, and he wasn’t just that they spent their earliest years practicing on courts near their home in Compton, California, at the height of the violence in the city. It was that the sport Richard Williams chose for his daughters, tennis, had spent decades doing what it could to keep black people out of its tournaments and the exclusive realm of well-to-do white people who played in their private, separate clubs.
The American Tennis Association had been founded in 1916, one of several organizations to provide African Americans with a way to play and compete for championships. Apart from the occasional outliers such as Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, MaliVai Washington or Chanda Rubin, the top-level players from the United States were almost exclusively white.
Until the Williams sisters.
Serena and Venus have done for tennis what Tiger Woods had to do for golf, America’s other country club sport. When Woods began his ascent, it was easy to believe that we would see a generation of black players rise up behind him, inspired by watching the fist-pumping, red-polo-clad Woods take down major championships with incredible speed. But that hasn’t happened.
For over a decade after Woods’ first Masters victory in 1997, he remained the only black player on the PGA Tour. Even now, Cameron Champ is the only other player of Black heritage to win on the Tour, and at this year’s Masters, there were only three Black players among the 90 men in the Masters field: Woods, Champ and Harold Warns III.
In contrast, tennis has Tiafoe, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka (who has lived in the US for years, although she represents Japan in international play), all of whom have cited the Williams sisters as the reason they came into tennis, the reason they believed they could rise in the sport.
They saw Venus and Serena, their braids and brown skin, raising silver plates and gilded cups on the center courts and knew: if they could do it, so can I.
As the tennis world is now learning, Tiafoe’s rise is almost as unlikely as the Williamses’ was.
His parents immigrated separately from Sierra Leone during its brutal civil war in the 1990s and met outside Washington DC Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, were born in 1998. A year later, father Constant was part of the construction team for the Junior Tennis Champions Center at the College Park, Maryland. When the JTCC was completed, Constant was hired as the main operator of the facility. When mother Alphina worked night shifts in nursing, when Constant took on extra hours for more money, he and the boys often slept on massage tables in an extra office at JTCC.
A young trainer at JTCC, Misha Kouznetsov, took note of Tiafoe when Tiafoe was 8 years old. The way he listened, his effort level, his love for the sport. Kouznetsov entered Tiafoe in his first tournament, paid the entry fee and bought him a new pair of shoes and shirt. At 15, Tiafoe became the youngest player to win the Orange Bowl, a prestigious international tournament for boys 18 and under.
Still only 24, he broke into the top 30 of the men’s ATP rankings in April and is currently ranked 26. On Friday, 22nd-seeded Tiafoe will play third-seeded Carlos Alcaraz in the semi-finals of the US Open, the furthest he has come further in a Grand Slam. He beat four-time Open champion Rafa Nadal in four sets in the fourth round, then Andrey Rublev in straight sets in the quarters.
It’s been a long time since an American man went that far in America’s marquee tournament (Andy Roddick, 2006), and even longer since a black man did it (Ashe, 1972).
Tiafoe knows that history, but he’s not worried about it, saying this week: “I want to win for me.”
But he also knows that, just as Venus and Serena did for him, his success will inspire others to play tennis, including other black children.
“That’s why I’m out here trying hard,” he said.