An emotional Frances Tiafoe celebrated his 21st birthday on Sunday in style at the Australian Open by beating 20th seed Grigor Dimitrov to reach the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time.
The American world number 39 broke down in tears after stunning the Bulgarian in the fourth round 7-5, 7-6 (8/6), 6-7 (1/7), 7-5 in 3 hours and 39 minutes.
“It means the world,” said Tiafoe, voice cracking. “I worked my a** off, man.”
Tiafoe is the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone and his father was the maintenance man at the Junior Tennis Champions Centre in Washington, where he picked up the sport and grew up to become one of the best juniors in America.
“I told my parents 10 years ago I was gonna be a pro tennis player and change their life. Now I’m in the quarter-finals of a Slam. I can’t believe it,” he said on court after setting a first-ever meeting with second seed Rafael Nadal.
“I obviously wasn’t a normal tennis story. The beginning of my career, I was playing for them, trying to do everything for my family. Obviously now I put them in a great place. Now I’m trying to do it for me,” he told reporters after the match.
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Talking about how he has used his tennis to help his family have a better life he said, “In March 2017 I bought a house there, bought a house in Maryland for my mom. My dad is in an apartment in Orlando. So, yeah, that was big. Getting us out of – you know, just put us in better situations. I was able to do stuff like that.
“Yeah, you know, at the beginning, that was just my goal as a kid. I didn’t want to go to college. I knew that from a young age. I wanted it and I’m doing it,” he added.
Getting his biggest career win on his 21st birthday, he posted a photo of him with his twin brother Franklin when they visited their native Sierra Leone as kids and spoke about how the trip changed his world view.
“My mom is probably getting a bunch of messages from Sierra Leone, reaching out to them. Aunts and uncles texting me on the WhatsApp, talking about a great job, all this...
“It was more my pops who wanted me to go there. Thought I was getting spoiled. He said, ‘You need to get you learned something, get you cultured.’ Came back definitely thinking different. Came back appreciating everything. After that, put things in perspective for me. I ain’t ever acting spoiled ever again,” he said.
The aggressive American upset the 20th seed in four high-quality sets that saw multiple breaks of serves and an avalanche of breathtaking winners.
“I would have been mad if I had lost on my birthday,” he added.
After celebrating by ripping his shirt off, beating his chest and showing off his muscles, LeBron James-style, Tiafoe seemed almost embarrassed. “I said I wasn’t going to do that again,” he grimaced.But he did get a comment from his hero for doing the iconic celebration.
He admitted he will have no chance of celebrating his birthday as he will have to prepare for the daunting prospect of facing the 17-time Spanish Grand Slam champion.
“I can’t do anything tonight. He’s going to run me like crazy,” he said. “I’d better go to bed now.”