Frances Tiafoe is one of the speediest players in the game, but at the start of 2018, he was spinning his wheels.
The 20-year-old Marylander had been highly touted and much covered over the previous five years. To reporters looking for a Cinderella story, and agents looking for a crossover star, the tale of Tiafoe’s beginnings—he learned the game at a club where his father, a refugee from Sierra Leone, was a maintenance worker—had been irresistible.
After three years on tour, though, Tiafoe’s ATP record stood at a less-than-storybook 9–32. When he dropped three straight first-round matches to start 2018, his ranking began to edge perilously close to triple-digit territory.
Tiafoe had trouble wresting control of rallies from the game’s best players, and even when he did, he struggled to close those players out. His two most high-profile matches had been five-set losses to John Isner and Roger Federer at the US Open in 2016 and 2017. Tiafoe talked about getting “big-boyed” by older and more powerful opponents. The phrase was telling: did this junior star—he won the Orange Bowl at 15—have a place with the big boys, after all?
By February, Tiafoe decided he needed to reset. Instead of heading back to his training base in Orlando, FL, he spent a week in the familiar, familial surroundings of College Park, MD, a Washington, D.C. suburb. There he worked on his normally reliable serve, which had gone wonky over the last month.
By the time he left, Tiafoe felt like he was “playing pretty good” again.
“I think home is the answer for me,” Tiafoe told the Washington Post. “It’s my city, It’s where I’m comfortable. I was going through a lot mentally...To see my brother [Franklin], see my friends, I think it builds character for me, just being accountable for myself.”
But even Tiafoe didn’t expect this trip home to be as sweet, or as productive, as it was. Two weeks later, he would take a wild card into the Delray Beach Open and turn it into a sudden breakthrough. He beat his childhood idol, Juan Martin del Potro, and two fellow up-and-comers, Hyeon Chung and Denis Shapovalov, before defeating Peter Gojowczyk in straight sets to capture his first ATP title.
Instead of relying on his speed to play scrambling defense, as he had in the past, Tiafoe returned serve agg-ressively, finished points with power and touch and bailed himself out with 130-m.p.h. serves. This time it was Tiafoe, rather than his opponents, who consistently found the clutch shots.
“I wasn’t expecting this, especially with how the year started,” said Tiafoe, who became the youngest American to win an ATP singles tournament since Andy Roddick in 2001.
As Roddick once did, Tiafoe also showed a flair for the dramatic. After breaking serve in Delray Beach, he sprinted to his sideline chair on changeovers. After clinching wins, he pointed his index finger toward the ground, as if to say, “This is my court.” And after one bad call went against Tiafoe, he pantomimed a heart attack and fell flat on his back.
“I get real pumped up,” Tiafoe said with a semi-sheepish smile this spring. “I’ve got my own swag out there. It’s good people see something different.”
aul Annacone, former coach of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, sees Tiafoe’s success in 2018 as a sign of a player who is learning to roll with the pro-tour punches.
“I’ve been impressed with Frances’ ability to adjust,” Annacone says. “He’s showing great signs of maturity, dealing with adversity and finding ways to create opportunities to win matches, regardless of what his level is on the day.”
Tiafoe himself cites discipline as the key to his improvement. As many young players discover, being a pro isn’t just a full-time job; it’s a way of life.
“Obviously I have an outgoing personality, so I’m trying to stay more focused throughout the year,” Tiafoe says. “I have fun when it’s the right time to have fun, but when I lock in for practice and matches, I’m not worried about fun.
“I’ve learned that I need to be more involved in my daily preparation on and off the court, and in non-tournament weeks.”
Tiafoe’s upswing continued the following month in Miami, where he beat Kyle Edmund and Tomas Berdych in third-set tiebreakers. In May, he finished runner-up on clay in Estoril. Now it was Tiafoe playing a big-boy game.
WATCH: TenniStory on Frances Tiafoe's offseason training:
Tiafoe’s introduction to tennis may seem unusual for this traditionally well-heeled sport, but there is a history of accomplished players who developed their games while their fathers kept a club running.
Pancho Segura and Ilie Nastase were the sons of maintenance workers at tennis facilities in Ecuador and Romania, respectively. Surrounded by racquets, balls and courts from very young ages, they didn’t so much learn the sport as imbibe and internalize it. The same is true for Frances and Franklin, the twin sons of Constant Tiafoe and Alphina Kamara.
“Our dad brought us to the club every day since we were like three years old,” Franklin Tiafoe told ATPWorldTour.com. “So it was normal to pick up a racquet and start hitting balls against a wall.”
When they were young, the twins curled up and fell asleep next to each other on the massage table in the club’s fitness room. That was fine with them, because they could wake up and play tennis again the next morning. Good tennis, too, because College Park isn’t just a club, it’s also a USTA training facility.
“We were around world-class players all day,” Franklin said, “so we were already inspired from the first time we saw a tennis ball hit.”
The player who inspired them most at College Park was Denis Kudla. Like the Tiafoes, Kudla was the child of an immigrant father, from Ukraine, and had a proclivity for the game.
Now 25, Kudla began the month of May at No. 117 in the world. But back then, for Frances, he was No. 1.
“I didn’t even care about, like, Roger or Rafa,” he said. “I’d see Kudla, and think, ‘Man, I want to be like that guy.’”
Four years ago, a 16-year-old Tiafoe followed Kudla onto the ATP tour when he made his main-draw debut at the tournament down the road, the Citi Open. This summer Tiafoe plans to come back to D.C. for the event.
Will this trip home prove as fruitful as the last one? He’s ready to find out.
“There isn’t a better feeling than playing in front of friends and family—best thing you can ask for,” Tiafoe says. “The hometown support I receive is amazing.
The Citi Open was the first pro tournament that I ever watched, so to win it would be amazing.”
Tiafoe will be returning to a tournament that, like him, has survived some headwinds and seemingly come out stronger for it. The event was launched in 1969 by longtime player agent Donald Dell, and its site, Rock Creek Park, was chosen by one of Dell’s clients, Arthur Ashe, who would win the title in 1973.
Five decades later, Dell is still involved in the tournament, and the location is still the same, but just about everything else has changed. In 1986, the surface went from Har-Tru to hard courts; in 2011, a WTA draw was added; in 2015, the event pulled out of the US Open Series and signed a broadcasting deal with
Tennis Channel; last year the Citi Open made Keely O’Brien its tournament director. A vice-president at the Lagardere agency, O’Brien is the only woman to run an ATP 500-level or 1000-level event.
O’Brien came in at an opportune moment. The 2017 ATP field was the tournament’s strongest in years, drawing players who had normally spent this part their summers on European clay. Five of the tour’s Top 12—Dominic Thiem, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and eventual champion Alexander Zverev—plus three-time tournament champion del Potro, began their US Open preparation on the humid hard courts of the nation’s capital. World No. 2 Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens headlined the WTA field.
“It’s always good to have some matches going into a Masters [tournament, the following week, in Canada],” Zverev told the Washington Post in 2017. “But I just enjoyed Washington the past two years. It was a tournament I wanted to play. I got to the quarterfinals, semifinals, but also it’s a different city than most U.S. cities. Different than New York and Miami. I just like the experience.”
O’Brien wants to build on the name-brand appeal of Zverev and del Potro and broaden the event’s audience.
“I want to make sure this is an event that anyone can come to,” O’Brien told the Washington Business Journal. “It’s more than just tennis. Tennis is the hook, but... you [also] have a tailgate, activities for kids, it’s family friendly.”
One of the local kids’ activities that the Citi Open supports is the Arthur Ashe Children’s Program, an after-school education center near Rock Creek Park. Ashe grew up three hours south in Richmond, VA, and his legacy in D.C. continues to resonate with the pros. In 2016, Gael Monfils said he was inspired to end a two-year title drought in D.C. when he saw the names of Ashe and Yannick Noah displayed on the champions’ awning that rings the center court.
Ashe’s father was a maintenance man who worked at the Richmond park where he learned to play tennis. Does that story sound familiar? Ashe’s legacy should hit home for Frances Tiafoe, and it may be one that he can build on in the future.
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