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Hometown Hopefuls: Frances Tiafoe on the American dream, his ambition, and ‘DMV mentality’

Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.

Twenty-five-year-old U.S. tennis star Frances Tiafoe often describes his life as a movie. The son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, he spent much of his childhood sleeping on hard folding tables at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland, a 12-minute train ride from Washington, D.C. His father worked as a janitor at the JTCC, where Frances first learned to play tennis. From those humble beginnings, Tiafoe has emerged as one of the top tennis players in the world. After making his Olympic debut two years ago, he reached his first major semifinal at the 2022 US Open and cracked the top 10 of the ATP rankings for the first time in June 2023.

NBC Sports caught up with Tiafoe this week after his second-round win at his hometown tournament, the Mubadala Citi DC Open in Washington, D.C. Basketball superstar Kevin Durant, another D.C. native, came onto the court to congratulate Tiafoe after the win. (Tiafoe’s week ended in the quarterfinals when he lost to eventual tournament winner Daniel Evans).

*This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

What’s it like playing here in D.C. compared to your typical ATP Tour stops?

Tiafoe: Nothing beats it. It was a crazy atmosphere and a crazy match. To have those moments is incredible. I’m super humbled by it. I mean wow, what a night. But it goes to show what the work does... A guy like Kevin Durant isn’t going to come watch any old tennis match. For him to come out and watch today is incredible and it means a lot to me.

What kind of ties do you still have to this community and this city?

Tiafoe: I’m always here, man. All my off time is here. I go to all the local restaurants and all the bougie restaurants. I’m really plugged in with the Wizards. Gaff [Wizards Center Daniel Gafford] is my guy. To see him come through, I didn’t even know he was coming today. I’m tapped into the Mystics. I go to Caps games. [Wizards, Mystics, and Capitals owner] Ted Leonsis, I’m very, very tied in. From every department in my life too, this is home. I’ve got cousins, family, friends, loved ones. This is genuinely one of the best cities in the world. Call me biased or whatever, sure. But this is everything and this tournament means the world to me.

You’ve talked about the “DMV mentality” [DC-Maryland-Virginia]. What does that mean to you?

Tiafoe: It’s just guys getting out the mud. We’re against all odds here in the DMV. But it seems like, as KD [Kevin Durant] says, there’s something in the water. Obviously, some of the best athletes in the world are from here. KD, Quinn Cook, Jeff Green, Victor Oladipo. Great athletes, actors, actresses, you name it, come from the DMV. So it’s a lifestyle.

You’ve definitely embodied that too, coming from the background that you did. Can you talk about what it was like at the beginning, and what it means now to be a top-ten player?

Tiafoe: What a journey, man. Who would have ever thought a guy like me would be top ten in the world? It shows a kid having a chance and an opportunity and taking this seriously, what he can do. The sky’s the limit, man. Don’t let people project their fears on you. The American dream, anything can really get done. If you do it with grace, do it with the right humbleness, treat people the right way, be a good person, work hard, the world is your oyster. It’s a matter of being a little lucky and being at the right place the right time, but when the opportunity comes your way, grabbing it with two hands.

Frances Tiafoe

USA’s Frances Tiafoe reacts while playing Russia’s Andrey Rublev during their 2022 US Open Tennis tournament men’s singles quarter-final match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, on September 7, 2022. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR / AFP) (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

And you started out at the JTCC sleeping there for a lot of the week. What was it like there? Was there even any cushion on the tables you were sleeping on?

Tiafoe: Yeah, yeah, I was sleeping on those hard beds. Again, when you’re growing up and you’re doing something for so long, it’s a normality. You don’t know the alternative because there is no alternative, right? And sleeping [the rest of the nights] in a two-bedroom with my mom, my twin brother and I were in the same room, that’s kind of what it was. But it’s not about where you started, it’s about where you’re going. And I’ve always had that vision. My parents instilled that in me. And I’m seeing my environment, I’m looking out, and I thought, “I can do something special. It’s a long shot, but I can do something special.” And I think that’s why people can kind of gravitate toward me, because there’s so many relatable stories that way. And when I look at these kids trying to do something special, any walks of life, I hope they grab some inspiration from me. Because I’m not just a once-in-a-lifetime story. There’s a lot of people who could do what I do. Again, the world’s your oyster.

Your biggest run came last year at the US Open, where you beat Rafael Nadal and went toe-to-toe with Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals. It struck me how at the end of this incredible run you still felt you disappointed the crowd and let them down a little bit, saying you’ll come back and win the tournament in the future. It’s impressive to see that ambition. But are you able to reflect on that now and appreciate what you achieved?

Tiafoe: For sure. It was a huge moment. It was 50 years since an African American man made the semis there. It was a huge moment. But as a competitor you want much more, and I felt like the whole city, the whole country was there rooting for me… Tweets were going crazy. And you’re living all this in real time, trying to beat the best players in the world. It was crazy. Semifinals… It was a huge moment, and at the moment, I felt like I let them down. Obviously, I gave everything I had, and people were just excited to see great tennis and history being made in front of them, but hopefully one day I do win that tournament, and I genuinely mean that. I really believe one day I can win the US Open.

Next year is an Olympic year. What was your first Olympic experience like in Tokyo? What are your thoughts looking ahead to potentially playing in Paris next year?

Tiafoe: I’m super excited for Paris. Obviously, Tokyo was an odd year for everyone, but I think Paris is gonna be a great experience with everything open. I want to be in the Olympic Village, I want that experience, and I want to really compete for gold. Obviously, I’m sitting in a totally different place in my career now than I was sitting at when I went to Tokyo, but being an Olympian is something special and something I take very seriously, and something I really want on the resume of hopefully getting a medal. So, we’ll see how that goes. Obviously, it’s a long way away and me and Paris don’t have a great relationship on clay, but I’ll make that work.