Frances Tiafoe serves it to HBCU athletes and future greats during the Citi Open

US tennis star Frances Tiafoe opens up about supporting HBCU athletics, her friendship with the Williams sisters and her return to DC for the Citi Open.

When Frances Tiafoe was 11, he cried when he saw Juan Martín del Potro win US Open.

del Potro belonged to Tiafoe favorite tennis player grow up. Whether it was more because del Potro was making history at a time when nobody outside of the Big Three Majors was winning — or because del Potro was the first to sign a tennis ball for Tiafoe — didn’t matter, because del Potro represented something for the young Tennis players like Tiafoe.

In a sport where titans can dominate the clay for decades, del Potro Tiafoe showed what was possible. He also took a moment to pay tribute to a young Tiafoe, who had big tennis dreams of his own, by autographing a souvenir that Frances would cherish for a lifetime.

Today, Tiafoe is in del Potro’s shoes. Not only because del Potro resigned this February and Tiafoe is currently at the helm No. 24 in the ATP men’s singles, but because Frances Tiafoe is now signing tennis balls for the next generation of DMV greats.

Tiafoe works with the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF) throughout the year, but as he prepared to compete at the 2022 CIti Open, Frances took some time to get back to basics as he taught young tennis players the basics of the game at the 2022 WTEF Clinic.

Not only did Citi sponsor a professional tennis tournament that year, the company was busy too Tennis player support play at HBCUs. Across collegiate athletics, there has been a great effort to support athletic programs at HBCUs, with top recruits contributing to these programs, while active and retired professional athletes also participate in support. Linebacker Bobby Wagner of the Los Angeles Rams is famous in the NFL wore HBCU sweatshirts during press conferences in 2019. Hall of Famer cornerback Deion Sanders is now the head football coach for Jackson State. And while Frances Tiafoe turned pro at 17, he also supports the HBCU’s mission.

So does Citi. The clinic offered young players the opportunity to be coached by Tiafoe, Morgan State head coach Matthew Townes, local HBCU tennis players and WTEF coaches. During the Citi Open, the bank provided a $10,000 grant for training at an HBCU.

In what Frances called his “favorite time of the year— back in DC at the tournament he idolized as a kid — Tiafoe spoke to FanSided about the importance of the Williams sisters, HBCU athletics, and the integrity of his LeBron-inspired celebration.

American professional tennis player Frances Tiafoe at the WTEF Clinic sponsored by Citi Bank.

I would like to hear about this partnership with WTEF and Citi.

Yes, I think this is an incredible promotion. Giving children to HBCUs a scholarship which is obvious we are all trying to support HBCUs and people of color at HBCUs. And frankly, top athletes go to HBCUs, [and we want] to give them the platform and recognition. It’s really special that the city can stand up and do that for one of our kids and I couldn’t be happier for them.

When you see these kids on the pitch, what memories of JTCC come back to you?

So many, so many. You’re young, you have big eyes, you don’t even know what life has in store for you. It is a honor. I’m super blessed to be able to do what I’m doing right now.

And obviously they look up to me, but I remember being in their shoes not too long ago. I’m still young so it can be quick, especially when you’re having fun. So I just want these kids to be better than yesterday and continue that process.

When you talk about kids looking up to you, I imagine growing up you looked up to the Williams sisters. There are so many parallels to you and your brother playing tennis.

Flash forward to today and your girlfriend acted as Venus in King Richard and then I saw you depend with them at the film premiere. What does her story mean to you today?

I think they’re just iconic in general – I think they have so much crossover. Calling them friends is crazy. Me and Serena now have the same agent and honestly I don’t think I would do what I would if it weren’t for her.

I mean they set such a high precedent. Playing against each other in the Grand Slam final and their whole story, it’s… There were a lot of relatable situations. They built something to make me feel like it was possible and now I’m living up to it.

If I could ever have my name in the same sentence as those two, I’d say I’ve had one heck of a career.

I know you want to inspire the next generation of black tennis players, and I know you are already doing that. Can you name a moment from WTEF camp when you bonded with someone who looked up to you?

Yeah I’m super connected to these guys all year round so to be able to see some of these guys and remember their names and have a relationship with them and have them so excited to see me , and ‘Oh my god, we watched you at Wimbledon; We all got up super early to watch,’ all these little things, it’s so cool.

And yes, and then they become longtime fans. It’s just an honor. The parents are very happy to see me; I’m locked in with everyone. When I’m out there competing, I want to give a lot more.

Yes, that’s incredible. You mentioned how important it is to support HBCU programs. Why is it so important for us to support these programs? And what can professional athletes who are passionate about HBCUs, and perhaps not alums, do to support them?

For example, NFL linebacker Bobby Wagner did not go to an HBCU, but he has worn HBCU sweatshirts during his press conferences. What can athletes do to support HBCUs?

Yes, I mean that’s exactly what it is. We only encourage them; we’re just putting money in them. I think HBCUs have a lot of potential. I mean, predominantly black colleges are so important just because most of our kids are going to end up there. Why can’t this be done at the highest level? Why can’t they get the best facilities and the best education and become even better people when they get out of there?

And I think a lot of our best athletes can go there and make something of themselves. They don’t have to — whether they’re in basketball or anything — they don’t have to go to the North Carolinas and stuff to become, whether they want to be MJ or LeBron or whatever the case may be. I think that’s where we’re trying to get HBCUs, and if everyone’s behind it in some way, we can definitely get that.

When Juan Martín del Potro retired in February, you remembered seeing him at the Citi Open as a kid. So what does it mean to be back in DC for the Citi Open and to follow his legacy? And have you signed tennis balls today? Are you starting this journey for another young child?

Yes Yes Yes. [Laughs] I definitely did.

Yeah I remember watching him play as a kid and how good it was and I’m always at the Citi Open. I want to do a show. I want you guys to watch me all week and dive deep into the event.

Yes, this is so exciting. Speaking of which, what are you looking forward to in your upcoming doubles matches with Alex [de Minaur]?

Yeah I mean I’m just ready to go I’m just ready to go. I’m just trying to compete as hard as I can and do what I do best.

Definitive. One last question: when did Jensen Brooksby start? to make your iconic LeBron celebration What was going through your mind in Atlanta?

He opened a can of worms that he doesn’t want to open all the way, so I’m pretty excited to play him again and do the real thing. Frances Tiafoe serves it to HBCU athletes and future greats during the Citi Open

John Verrall

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