Tiafoe Versus Federer Thrills NYC Patrons of Free Tennis Lessons

  • U.S. Open match caps annual City Parks Foundation benefit
  • Billie Jean King connects Tiafoe to CityParks kids’ stories

They roared for Roger Federer all night long, and by the fifth set, for Frances Tiafoe, too. He’d earned it with his play on the second evening of the U.S. Open.

But for some in the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the cheers for Tiafoe began the moment the 19-year-old walked onto the court, not just the underdog but an emblem of opportunity in America.

Frances Tiafoe acknowledges the crowd after losing to Roger Federer.

Photographer: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images Amanda amanda

The son of an immigrant from Sierra Leone, Tiafoe first played with rackets discarded by more affluent kids at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. He initially had access because his father was the center’s custodian, hired after distinguishing himself on the construction crew. When others noticed the boy’s talent, more doors opened.

The story resonated particularly with the patrons of free tennis lessons in New York City’s public parks attending the match as part of a benefit for the program.

Each year, CityParks Tennis, run by the City Parks Foundation, provides twice weekly free tennis lessons in 38 parks to more than 6,300 youth ages 6 to 17, at a cost of about $440,000. In past surveys, 60 percent identified as low-income, 21 percent as Latino, 21 percent as African-American and 17 percent Asian.

The connection to Tiafoe was obvious to Billie Jean King. “He’s basically like a lot of these CityParks kids, you just never know how you’re going to touch somebody’s life,” she said. “You do the best you can, because relationships are everything.”

One such kid is Justin Vasquez, 17. Like Tiafoe, Justin was introduced to the sport by his father, Argee Vasquez, a designer. About three years ago, after watching a U.S. Open match on television together, Argee took Justin to their local park to hit balls. It’s still one of their favorite activities. They’ve never played for points.

For Argee, seeing his son so involved in tennis is the fulfillment of a dream he once had for himself. Growing up in East New York in the 1970s he was interested in the sport but various forces including the run-down park in the neighborhood conspired against him.

Argee and Justin Vasquez

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

That park is beautiful now -- his mother still lives near it -- but as he had some success in his career, he chose to raise his family in Rego Park, Queens, where he owns a home.

As for CityParks Tennis, “It’s been a blessing,” Argee said. Justin has been a CityParks instructor over the summer and an intern during the winter. The program also sent him to Wimbledon, where he got to see Federer play.

“It was surreal,” Justin said.

During dinner, King, a founder of the benefit, pledged $5,000 to the program -- then stood up from her seat to urge guests to match her. “It’s not going to change your lifestyle for a minute,” she said.

Beryl Lacoste Hamilton presents Billie Jean King with a photograph that hung in Rene Lacoste’s Paris living room.

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

The affluent trappings of the sport were in evidence as Beryl Lacoste Hamilton captivated guests with recollections of her elegant grandfather, Rene Lacoste, inventor of that iconic and pricey polo shirt. She said he designed it “to better resist the heat and humidity of the New York summer.” Fondation Lacoste has supported CityParks Tennis since 2013. BNP Paribas is the presenting sponsor of the program.

Before the match, King and sportscaster Mary Carillo talked about Tiafoe. Carillo did a story on him for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

“He would take tennis rackets out of the garbage pail, then he started using rackets from the demo basket in the pro shop, that’s why his strokes are so funky,” Carillo said. “When he’s confident, he’s ripping his forehand.”

King, as is her way, was focused on mentoring. “I want him to work on his technique,” King said. “Technique breaks down, especially when you get nervous. And this kid’s got so much talent.”

After the match, Justin said, “He played so well, he showed his heart.”

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