Tiafoe, homegrown Olympian, plays tennis in Tokyo
By Chris McManes
In tennis scoring, love means nothing. But to Frances Tiafoe, the love he felt growing up at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park meant everything.
After producing one of his finest performances in a Grand Slam event, Tiafoe returned to JTCC to prepare for the Olympics. He feels right at home.
“I spent so much of my life here,” Tiafoe said, after hitting with North Carolina All-American Brian Cernoch. “I love coming back here, not only to practice but just being here in general.
“So many great memories of guys I grew up with. Just a lot of love here, all around.”
Tiafoe, 23, spent many nights sleeping at JTCC when not at his family’s apartment just outside Hyattsville city limits. He now lives in Boynton Beach, Fla. When in Maryland, he stays with his twin brother, Franklin, in Beltsville.
Frances Tiafoe recorded his first victory over a world Top 5 player when he defeated No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 on June 26 in the opening round of Wimbledon. Tsitsipas was seeded third and had advanced to the championship of the 2021 French Open.
Following the win, Tiafoe moved up five spots in the world rankings to No. 52. He was ranked as high as 29th in 2019.
“This gives me the confidence that I can not only get back to where I was but even higher,” Tiafoe said. “To not only beat a [Top 4] player but in the fashion I did — in straight sets, relatively convincingly.
“It gave me a lot of confidence. Hopefully, I can carry it on.”
In the second round, Tiafoe broke Vasek Pospisil’s serve three times en route to a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory. He was knocked out of the tournament in the next round when he lost to Karen Khachanov, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. Tiafoe was pleased with his play in the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.
“Very much so,” he said. “I thought I had much more potential to go even further than I did. I didn’t play a great match in the third round, by my standards, but my opponent definitely played well. Ultimately, it was a great run.”
On June 20, Tiafoe won the Viking Open in Nottingham, England, which, like Wimbledon, is played on grass. It was his sixth championship on the ATP Challenger Tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals’ second-highest level of competition behind the ATP Tour. He won five matches en route to his first tournament win on grass.
“The whole grass-court season was big for me,” he said.
Tiafoe captured his first ATP Tour title when he won the 2018 Delray Beach Open in Florida. His best finish in a Grand Slam came in 2019 when he advanced to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Tiafoe won four matches, including over No. 6 Kevin Anderson, before falling to No. 2 Rafael Nadal.
Tiafoe left for Tokyo and the Summer Olympics on July 19. Four days later, JTCC hosted a pep rally to celebrate him and fellow Prince George’s County Olympians Jerami Grant and Kevin Durant. Grant is a 2012 DeMatha grad and played on the USA Basketball Men’s National Team with Durant.
Tiafoe won his opening singles and doubles matches in Tokyo before bowing out in the second round. Tsitsipas, the man he beat at Wimbledon, defeated him in singles.
Tiafoe was honored to represent the United States.
“A lot of higher-ranked American guys didn’t want to play, so the opportunity presented itself, and I said why not?” he said. “Even though it [wasn’t] a traditional Olympic experience, I’m forever an Olympian.”
Tiafoe turned pro in 2015 at age 17. During his career, the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder has won more than $4.4 million.
“In 2019, I thought I could have ended in the Top 20, but I got a little complacent,” he said. “I’m kind of in a rebuilding stage and actually think I’m a better tennis player now than when I was ranked 29th. I’ve enjoyed every part of my process and [am] ready to tap into my prime.”
Tiafoe received the Association of Tennis Players (ATP) 2020 Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for his off-court efforts during the pandemic. These included youth outreach, charitable giving and the video he and his girlfriend, Ayan Broomfield, posted to support the Black tennis community following George Floyd’s murder.
Tiafoe’s parents, Constant and Alphina, escaped separately from war-torn Sierra Leone and met in Washington, D.C. Constant worked as
a day laborer and was hired to help build JTCC. Upon its completion in 1999, he stayed on as the facility’s maintenance man.
Alphina worked night shifts as a nurse, and because Constant could earn extra money working overtime, he figured out a way to keep Frances and Franklin with him. The three slept in a converted JTCC storage room most weekdays. The arrangement gave the boys the opportunity to play a lot of tennis.
Komi Oliver Akli, JTCC’s senior director of player development, has known Tiafoe since he was 2. He was one of the first coaches to work with him.
“He came at a good time because we already had a lot of players who played high-level tennis,” Akli said. “Every time he saw those guys play, he’d say, ‘One day I’m going to beat these guys.’”
When Tiafoe was 8, Misha Kouznetsov began training him at JTCC, a regional training center for the United States Tennis Association (USTA). The facility allowed Tiafoe to train for free because his father worked there, and Kouznetsov paid his fees and travel expenses to attend junior events.
At 15, Tiafoe became the youngest player to win the 18-and-under boys singles title at the Junior Orange Bowl in Plantation, Fla. In August 2015, he went to Kalamazoo, Mich., and won the USTA Boys 18 National Championship. At one point, he was the second-ranked junior in the world.
Tiafoe gives much of the credit for his success to the care and coaching he received at JTCC.
“It gave me a sense of structure and discipline,” he said. “Everything was super accessible — top-class coaching, top-class mentorship. It kept me away from maybe going in a bad direction. This is a good environment.
“They not only build good tennis players but great individuals. Who you are as a person is way more important than what you do in your day job, even if you do it at the highest level.”
Akli sees a bright future for the easygoing Tiafoe.
“Everybody loves Frances,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where he goes. Look at Wimbledon, everybody was cheering for him. I can’t wait for him to win something big.”
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) is a former sportswriter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.