Still, the crowd found him. Passers-by stopped to thank and congratulate him. The mayor of Greenbelt shook his hand. It was more attention than Frances Tiafoe Sr. ever wanted or expected when he came to the US from Sierra Leone so many years ago. But he wasn’t worried, he declared proudly.
“Frances represents a lot of things right now,” said Tiafoe Sr. “He represents where he’s from. It stands for College Park. He stands for America.”
To the crowd gathered in College Park, Tiafoe stood for Prince George’s. He gave them more reason than ever to cheer on a historic run to the US Open semifinals, becoming the first American to do so since 2006. They got together to give the county’s newest star a hero’s welcome when Tiafoe returned to the tennis club he had set up on Friday afternoon.
A line of tennis players and fans, some newly converted after the US Open catapulted Tiafoe’s fame, meandered around the JTCC’s courtyard to await autographs and photos at what district leaders celebrated “Frances Tiafoe Day.” had explained. The vibrant greens and blues of the Sierra Leonean flag waved from the stands as the crowd gathered at the club’s center court to hear Tiafoe speak. When he took the microphone, the three-syllable chant was singing just a week ago it echoed through Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, erupting again: “Ti – Ah – Foe!”
“It takes a whole village,” he said. “If it weren’t for this place, you probably wouldn’t know who Frances Tiafoe is.”
Prince George’s home, Tiafoe, is still Kenilworth Avenue, the leafy Hyattsville Street where he grew up. His whole world used to be just Hyattsville and College Park; Baseball and basketball games across the Anacostia River at Riverdale Park and nights spent with his father at the JTCC, where Tiafoe Sr. lived and worked as a janitor, earning his son a free spot on the club’s beginner’s class.
Across the county, Tiafoe knows his profile is much bigger now.
“It really is true,” Tiafoe said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Many people grew up in low-income areas in Prince George’s County. Doing something great and changing the whole mindset of the community… I think we can do a lot of special things here.”
In the autograph line, Ethan Massay, 9, excitedly spoke to his father Phillip about Tiafoe’s game. He is an inspiration to Massay, who takes lessons from Misha Kouznetsov, Tiafoe’s former coach.
Massay and his dad raved about Tiafoe’s volleys and drop shots from the net – “That’s what coach Misha tells me,” he said.
“I don’t even like tennis,” said Aina Horton, who was also in line. “But when I heard that we have a local from Prince George’s County, and he’s also from Sierra Leone, I was super excited.”
Tiafoe’s success has electrified a tight-knit Sierra Leonean community at Prince George’s, said Horton, who is now a fan of Tiafoe and tennis (although she still picks up the rules. She bonded with Tiafoe immediately.
“Humble beginnings, [his] Parents came here as immigrants, focused and dedicated to tennis since he was three years old… that just says a lot,” Horton said.
Tiafoe was quiet on Friday and is still grappling with the surreal two weeks he’s had, he admitted. As reporters reminded him, he is facing a changing of the guard in the tennis world following the retirement of Serena Williams and Roger Federer; The tennis scene is longing for a new champion. At the US Open he appeared to carry a sense of responsibility – “I feel like I let you down,” he told the New York crowd after his heartbreaking semifinal loss.
At home, he promised to keep fighting – on the pitch and for Prince George.
“I think a lot of people overlook this area,” Tiafoe said. “Many people [here] feel like you have something to prove.”
Everyone from athletes to congressmen called to support him in New York — “that’s the best thing about the DMV space,” Tiafoe said, “we really stand behind each other” — and it was surreal to think he was a An example might be children in the county, as was Kevin Durant, a native of Prince Georgia, for him.
After helping raise his son to the top of American tennis, Tiafoe Sr. also wants to turn his attention to helping Prince George’s youth. He’s considering going out and holding fundraisers, he said. But not before you enjoy today. He exhaled on the back porch of the JTCC.
“See that window over there?” he said, pointing along the brick wall of the clubhouse. “I lived in this room for 16 years.”
“I didn’t work for nothing,” he said.