There were videos of tennis pro Francis Tiafoe defeating No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal at the 2022 U.S. Open in the quarter finals. On December 12, Seven Arrow students watched in awe as this athlete made play after play – and then he was in the room with them on the La Cruz campus.
Sports journalist Rachel Nichols, who is also a parent at the TK-sixth grade school in Pacific Palisades, led the interview.
Tiafoe, 24, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, said he picked up the sport because his father worked in maintenance at the Junior Tennis Championship Center in College Park, Maryland.
His father, Constant Tiafoe, started working at the Center in College Park in 1999, and eventually moved into one of its vacant storage rooms while working around the clock.
His twin boys (Franklin and Frances) would sometimes stay with him, sleeping on a massage table, while their mother worked night shifts as a nurse.
While at the Center, Tiafoe asked for lessons and instructors told him he was too little, but “I watched the kids and picked up anything I could.
“It is important to take an opportunity and seize it and try to take it to the max,” Tiafoe told students. “Everyone has his own path, but you have to stay true to your own goals, your own dreams.”
He said that when he was about 14, he knew he wanted to be a professional. “My parents wanted me to have an education and get a degree,” Tiafoe said, and added, “and they’d still like me to go to college.”
He had received a full scholarship to a university, which made the decision to go pro even more difficult.
In April 2015, when he was 17, he turned professional. At the time he was ranked 520 by Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). “You have a moment. . .I put all my eggs in one basket and doubled down on it,” he said. Two years later he was in the top 100, now he is ranked 19 by ATP.
He told the students he practices at least 20 hours a week and said reaching the top tier of players “was very tough, but I played so much tennis at a young age, that my road was easier.”
Tiafoe said in high school he missed a lot of parties and never went to prom. “But when you want to do something, you have make sacrifices.”
He also acknowledged the wisdom in choosing friends. “Your circle makes or breaks you,” Tiafoe said. “If you’re not in the best environment, life can go wrong fast.”
He was asked about the match against Nadal. “He’s one of the Mr. Rushmore guys,” Tiafoe said, but “after I won the first set, I believed I could win.”
Afterwards, he said “It was a crazy feeling. It felt like the world stopped.”
On the ride back to the New York City hotel with his family, “We were all screaming and shouting.”
Tiafoe, 24, who the first American male to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since John Isner at Wimbledon in 2018, and the first American in Queens since 2006, said, “It felt like the whole country was with me.”
He lost to Spain’s Carlos Alcarez in five sets that lasted four hours.
He was asked what other sports he liked. “I wished I had played more sports as a kid,” Tiafoe said. “I love basketball. It’s a great sport, but I’m a little small.” His ATP bio lists him as 6’2” and 190 pounds.
Tiafoe, who lives in the DC area, came to Los Angeles to visit girlfriend, Ayan Broomfield, a Canadian tennis player, who lives on the Westside. Broomfield, with a UCLA teammate, won the 2019 NCAA Division I Women’s Tennis Championship.
Broomfield was also the body double for Venus Williams matches on the 2021 film King Richard.
The two met when they were 14 and started dating two years later. “I love his personality,” Broomfield said. “He made me laugh a lot and still makes me laugh every day.”
Both have started foundations, whose mission is to help inner city kids have access to tennis (Ayan Broomfield Foundation and Bigfoe Foundation).
“Chasing perfection is not a real thing, you can always be better—the work never stops,” Tiafoe told students. “The journey matters so much more.”
Before signing tennis balls and posing for photos with parents, teachers and students, Tiafoe said, “Dreams should be so big that people think you’re crazy.”