Jay-Z has made yet another intriguing investment: a teenage tennis prodigy.
This year, 17-year-old Francis Tiafoe, a much buzzed about prospect who recently signed with the iconic rapper's agency, Roc Nation, debuted at the U.S. Open. He is the first tennis player represented by Roc Nation, and is almost surely the least known of anyone on the agency's roster, which includes New York Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia, Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, and New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, among others.
His endearing youthful exuberance becomes readily apparent when he talks about his new representatives.
"I got to meet Jay-Z twice!" Tiafoe said on Saturday.
So far, Roc Nation's bet has paid off. Tiafoe went pro this spring and his ranking has shot up to 257th in men's singles. He was the youngest player in this year's men's singles draw.
"The last couple of weeks, I've been playing some of the best tennis of my career so far," Tiafoe said. "I played a pretty good match here" – against 22nd seed Serbia's Viktor Troicki, in the first round of men's singles, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 – "and it was a great experience playing with this crowd. The atmosphere is definitely unbelievable here. This was definitely a good week and some change for me. I'm really happy I had this opportunity."
Tiafoe said the relationship with Roc Nation, who split from CAA earlier this year after having partnered with the mega agency since launching its sports arm in 2013, came about after a year of getting to know his agent, Wajid Syed, there.
"I really liked him and I decided to go with it," Tiafoe said. "It's business. You gotta take that stuff pretty seriously."
Tiafoe was introduced to tennis in an unlikely way. His father, Constant Tiafoe, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, worked as a custodian at the prestigious Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. At JTCC, Tiafoe began to hit balls and showed promise. He ultimately rose through the junior rankings and two years ago became the youngest player to win the Orange Bowl, a prestigious junior tennis tournament in Florida.
His parents attended the Open this week.
"They love it here," he said. "My mom freaks out."
Earlier this year, Tiafoe decided to leave his Maryland coaches for the U.S. Tennis Association training facility in Boca Raton, Florida, where he now trains under José Higueras. So far, he's been pleased with the results. In May, Tiafoe became the first American player younger than 18 years old to compete in the French Open since Michael Chang won the tournament in 1989 as a 17-year-old. Tiafoe lost in the first round to 36th-ranked Martin Klizan.
"The day before the French Open," Tiafoe said, "I was freaking out. Playing in a main draw Grand Slam is something you dream about as a kid."
Tiafoe said he was shocked to see his ranking rise and attributed the change to focusing more on the mental aspect of the game, rather than just relying on his physical abilities.
"It's really a belief," he said. "It's knowing that this is where you're supposed to be. Just maturing as a person and knowing that I took every day on the practice courts more seriously and got stronger. My body is filling out a bit, which helps me last longer at this level, but believing is something huge. Before last week, anytime I played a guy in the top 100, I thought it would be huge if I won. Last week, I beat two guys in the top 100. That helps build confidence. It's closer to what I call 'big boy tennis.'"
With teammate Sachia Vickery, Tiafoe made it to the second round of mixed doubles Saturday afternoon, where they were paired against Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan and Henri Kontinen of Finland.
As the sun set on one of the outer courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center Saturday, Tiafoe and Vickery played loose and aggressive, the two landing four ace serves during their game. Ultimately they lost, 5-7, 5-7, but Tiafoe said he felt good about his first U.S. Open.
"It's hard to win Grand Slams," he said. "There are a bunch of young players coming up and doing incredible stuff. Hopefully my era can help build the game."
From Flushing Meadows, Tiafoe will take a few days to rest in New York, visit family in Maryland, compete more in California and continue training. Then, he will start his senior year of high school.
"I hope to finish in May," Tiafoe said. "I can't wait!"