A reason for Frances Tiafoe's star turn at US Open: Serena and Venus

Swaddled in a hoodie emblazoned with "GOAT" on its front, the bold letters each featuring a different black-and-white image of Serena Williams, Frances Tiafoe was asked what Serena has meant to him.

"She [is] definitely the reason why I think I can do the things I'm doing," he told ESPN's panel this week, sitting on its set at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. "When I'm younger, the reason why I said to my dad I could be a professional tennis player is seeing her and Venus battle each other. [It was] like, 'Well, damn, two people that look like me and I can go do that, that's unbelievable.' [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 in and out of professional tennis have discussed the impact the Williams sisters have had on them.

Their greatness — between them they hold 30 Grand Slams and two Olympics singles titles and together won 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 backstory.

But the Williams sisters have been particularly impactful for Black folks. It wasn't just that their father, who had no background in the sport, decided to be their first coach, and it wasn't just that they spent their earliest years practicing on courts near their home in Compton, California, at the height of violence in the city. It was that the sport Richard Williams chose for his daughters, tennis, had spent decades doing whatever 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, segregated clubs.

The American Tennis Association had been founded in 1916, one of several organizations meant to give African Americans a way to play and compete for championships. Save for the occasional outlier such as Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, MaliVai Washington or Chanda Rubin, the highest-level players from the United States were almost exclusively white.

Sept 7, 2022; Flushing, NY, USA; Frances Tiafoe of the USA after beating  Andrey Rublev on day ten of the 2022 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
American Frances Tiafoe will have the crowd on his side during the semifinals of the men's US Open. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

Until the Williams sisters.

Serena and Venus have done for tennis what Tiger Woods was supposed to do for golf, the U.S.'s other country club sport. When Woods began his ascent, it was easy to think we'd see a generation of Black players come up behind him, inspired by watching the fist-pumping, red-polo-wearing Woods rack up major championships at an incredible rate. But that hasn't happened.

For over a decade after Woods' first Masters win 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 have a win on the Tour, and at this year's Masters there were just three Black players among the 90 men who were in the Masters' field: Woods, Champ and Harold Varner III.

In contrast, tennis has Tiafoe, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka (who has lived in the U.S. for years though she represents Japan in international play), all of whom have cited the Williams sisters as the reason they got 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 center courts and knew: if they did it, I can too.

All of those players have won at least once on their respective tours, with Osaka and Stephens winning Grand Slam titles, and all of the women cracking the top 10 in WTA rankings with Gauff doing so next week after her run to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open.

As the tennis-watching world is learning now, 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, D.C. Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, were born in 1998. A year later, father Constant was part of the construction crew for the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. When the JTCC was completed, Constant was hired as head janitor for the facility. Since mom Alphina worked night shifts in nursing, when Constant took on extra hours for more money, he and the boys would often sleep on massage tables in an extra office at JTCC.

A young coach 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, paying the entry fee and buying him a new pair of shoes and shirt. When he was 15, Tiafoe became the youngest player to win the Orange Bowl, a prestigious international tournament for boys 18-and-under.

Still just 24, he cracked the top 30 in the men's ATP rankings in April and is currently ranked 26th. On Friday, the 22nd-seeded Tiafoe will play third seed Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals of the US Open, the farthest he's advanced in a Grand Slam. He beat four-time Open champ Rafa Nadal in four sets in the fourth round, then Andrey Rublev in straight sets in the quarters.

It has been a long time since an American man advanced this 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 kids.

"That's why I'm out here trying pretty hard," he said.