Frances Tiafoe sat quietly behind a makeshift podium situated just a few steps away from the courts on which he once practiced hour after hour as he honed his tennis skills.
And while the roar of the crowd may still be echoing in his ears after his historic success at the recent U.S. Open, the young tennis star received a hero’s welcome upon his return to the community where he took his first steps – both on and off the court.
In fact, as Tiafoe greeted hundreds of friends, family members, local leaders and dozens of youth eager to follow in his footsteps – a collective who gathered in his support at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland – their voices filled the skies with shouts of “welcome home” that would reverberate long after he began his words of thanks.
Thus, making up in exuberance what they lacked in size when compared to the thousands who witnessed his success during the recent U.S. Open, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and Ray Benton, JTCC’s CEO, spearheaded a celebration that reminded Tiafoe what the fictitious Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz eventually discovered, “there’s no place like home.”
Alsobrooks made it official as she declared Friday, September 16, “Frances Tiafoe Day in Prince George’s County.”
Tiafoe, perhaps more willing to let his prowess on the tennis court serve as his message than a long speech ever could, thanked those who came out in his support with just a few comments and a huge smile. But he promised the hometown crowd that he would keep working hard until he could really make them proud and bring home his first Grand Slam title.
But from this writer’s perspective, what really made Tiafoe stand out in comparison to far too many other Black “celebrities” who have risen to the top of their chosen careers, would be his humility.
Tiafoe willingly signed scores of t-shirts, tennis balls, posters –whatever folks presented to him – and posed for photograph after photograph with adoring children or equally enthralled adults until the very last person in line had been acknowledged.
If he had somewhere else to be, it clearly did not matter to him.And for the record, the line of those who waited for their chance to meet Tiafoe would be a very long one.
Benton said he has long been proud of Tiafoe who first learned the rubrics of tennis as a little boy under the guidance of JTCC coaches.
“We’re so proud of Frances who competes with such grace and sportsmanship, serves as an excellent role model and who always strives for excellence,” Benton said. “He’s a true champion for tennis. But what has really impressed me is his longtime commitment to serving as a mentor for youth.”
Alsobrooks shared a story about a woman who, as she moved through the crowd to take her seat – one, incidentally reserved next to the tennis star – continued to utter three simple words in an almost sing-song manner.
“I’m the mother,” Alsobrooks said, referring to her observation of Tiafoe’s mother and the phrase she said repeatedly with pride.
“And like your mother and as any mother would be, we, too, are all so proud of you,” Alsobrooks said to Tiafoe.
“We are in the presence of greatness,” she said. “And I’m convinced that your recent success at the U.S. Open, becoming the first American to reach the semifinals since 2006 and the first Black American man since Arthur Ashe in 1972 to make it to the semifinals, was not an accident.”
“It was a step forward for you. This moment is lightning striking. And it confirms the fact that talent is nothing without its being accompanied by hard work. You’ve worked hard ever since your father, who helped build this facility, first brought you and your brother when you were just children to tennis courts not far from where we’re gathered today.”
“This is your day – one on which we honor you – our hometown hero and native son,” she said.
Other local officials from the County would continue to share words of praise about Tiafoe with the festivities continuing for several hours, replete with picnic-style food and drinks, celebratory music and the release of a huge bundle of balloons into the sunny skies that signaled the end of the celebration.
As for Tiafoe, one observer reminded this writer something he’d heard the tennis star mention just a few days ago – a lesson that he learned during this year’s U.S. Open.
“It takes courage to play this game at this level and to continue to be competitive,” Tiafoe had recently been heard to say.
“And now, I really believe that I can win any match, no matter who my opponent may be, if I really put my mind to it. If I play with everything I’ve got. And that’s what I plan to do – to get better and better and win,” Tiafoe said.