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How Frances Tiafoe's pure love for the DMV is creating a domino effect throughout local tennis circles
"He has always been the guy I look up to and a constant inspiration in my life," says Hailey Baptiste—who also benefited from a competitive pathway made possible by the NJTL network.
Published Aug 01, 2022
BAG CHECK: See what Big Foe has packed
When Frances Tiafoe and Hailey Baptiste boarded a long-haul flight to Australia earlier this year, the energetic duo sat next to each other. Except there was a problem: their seat assignments weren’t together. The Americans soon heard their names called over the intercom, triggering fits of laughter between the two. It was just another chapter of harmless mischief shared between a pair of tennis players connected by a bloodline—the DMV.
Short for District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, the DMV's geographical coverage is subject to debate. The nation's capital and bordering neighborhoods only? Anywhere on the metro line? Locales within 50 miles? Everything under the umbrella?
For Tiafoe and Baptiste, it’s more than an abbreviated place they call home. It’s an identity marker, a way of living, and a motivating vibe to push forward.
“It's kind of your blue-collar place. A lot of culture there, hardworking people. I think it's underdogs there. A lot of guys, especially in the part of the DMV area where I grew up and my friends, are underdogs that people don't think you can make it out of here,” Tiafoe told TENNIS.com in Rome. “That's kind of how I think of it. But it's a good place to live. A lot of fun things to do.”
Reflected Baptiste in an email, “Growing up in D.C. was pretty special to me and something I appreciate more and more the older I get. There’s obviously a lot of history within D.C. and so much culture to see and learn from. Anyone can feel at home and not feel out of place.”
Tiafoe and Baptiste are just two success stories from a tennis community built on grassroots investment. Tiafoe, 24, and Baptiste, 20, both have ties to the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC), a National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapter striving to make picking up a racquet achievable for everyone, regardless of age and background. Today, there are more than 300 NJTLs nationwide offering low-cost—and in some cases free—tennis and education programming to underserved youth. The United States Tennis Association Foundation (USTAF) announced in June that nearly $3 million in annual grants have been awarded to 155 chapters, including JTCC.
As the USTA’s director of diversity & Inclusion Sean Holcomb-Jones explains, there might just be something in the DMV water, thanks to the model of excellence chapters like JTCC have established and sustained.
“I think there's a lot to look forward to from the professional ranks, but even the players that didn't turn professional, the laundry list of college players at a high level from all of these facilities is huge. I think a lot of it has to do with community,” he says. “Just everybody being together and having a high level of competition day in and day out, not only in the facilities that these players train in, but also just around the section in general.”
Jeri Ingram, executive director of Metropolitan Tennis & Education Group (MTEG)—a fellow NJTL—agrees that one of the DMV’s strengths is its inherent competitiveness. As a junior, Ingram tapped into her local NJTL for advancement, a path that ultimately led her to qualify in singles at the Australian Open and US Open. She worked for the Department of Parks and Recreation before combining her tennis background and business acumen with a leadership role at MTEG, where she has bridged diversity, inclusion and equity in partnership with the USTA Foundation’s Excellence Team initiative.
“The foundation has done a lot with excellence teams and trying to take out the financial barrier for players. That creates a level of competition across the board,” Ingram says. “Tennis is expensive. Period. This is a very diverse area. It allows for more opportunity.”
I think NJTLs are huge. It’ giving guys like me an opportunity that essentially wouldn't be playing the game without those foundations. It's a broadening of the sport. A lot of people that look like me just need a chance. And I think they're doing a great job of that. Frances Tiafoe
One name descending from the MTEG network to write down? The Ngounoue family. Eldest daughter Malkia, 21, recently graduated from the University of Kansas after playing No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles. Clervie, 16, won the prestigious Les Petits As as a 13-year-old, and captured the 2022 Australian Open girls’ doubles title. Carel, 13, finished runner-up last month in Wimbledon’s inaugural boys’ 14 & under singles event after winning his first four matches.
Clervie, who today primarily trains at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, believes her time evolving in the DMV and early exposure to stiffer opposition prepared her to pursue ambitions on a global scale.
“This team tennis environment was just an amazing way for me to just start getting the experience of playing different people all over the states, I definitely got a little taste of what it would be like to be on the road, going from tournament to tournament,” she says. “Jeri was such a big help. Still now, but especially growing up.”
The upbeat teenager is close friends with Robin Montgomery, a fellow past excellence team member. Like Tiafoe and Baptiste, the left-handed Montgomery molded her game at the JTCC. Last September, she tremendously swept the girls’ singles and doubles crowns at the US Open.
Ngounoue’s parents were first to cross paths with Tiafoe, and she was initially connected to Baptiste through big sister Malkia. When on the road, social media has acted as an additional outlet of support for Ngounoue. Whether its accounts like Black Spin Global helping foster positive dialogue through results updates or her DMV peers reaching out through direct messaging, there’s an over-arching approachability amongst the group.
“I have talked to Frances on Instagram. He congratulated me for a couple tournaments. And I spoke with him at the US Open. We're all connected. It's all friendly. It's a really good atmosphere always to have people like that around you,” says Ngounoue, who has been ranked as high as No. 10 in the ITF World Tennis Tour Junior Rankings.
Ngounoue is just getting started with professional tournaments, but she’s already a seasoned veteran in the inspiration department. It’s encouraging seeing someone who looks like you on television—but an immeasurable dimension is added when someone who looks like you brings a junior Grand Slam trophy home to your stomping grounds.
“They're seeing it locally and then where it can take them. They share their lunch together. So they feel like they can reach out, call Clervie, text and DM her,” says Ingram. “The impact is great, because she feels like one of them and they feel like one of her. They're all playing tennis, yet it transcends in life, which makes it all come full circle.”
Holcomb-Jones spent his fair share of time keeping tabs on local talent when he led HBCU Morgan State’s men’s and women’s tennis teams prior to a four-year run as manager of the USTA Foundation’s excellence program & corporate activations. One observation that resonated with him was how accessible Tiafoe remained throughout his climb from local pro to Big Foe. From frequent hits with Baptiste to roaming the JTCC halls regularly, Tiafoe is the resident big bro.
“The better Frances does, the better the sport is in this country. At the end of the day, one of the things that's so great about Frances is he doesn't hide,” states Holcomb-Jones. “It's not like you never see him around or he's secluded with his camp. The kids at JTCC often see Frances, it's normal.
“When they see him and they see him training, or they see him walking around in the facility, they know it's possible. It brings that down to earth mentality, brings inspiration to the kids. I don't think there's anything better.”
Tiafoe has been the ongoing positive voice and shoulder to lean on for Baptiste. The Hyattsville, Md. native has shown the way in establishing himself as a tour mainstay, walking in a pair of shoes that Baptiste is privileged to borrow from her "big brother" when seeking the right fit for new situations. The powerful connection can be traced back to their roots of balancing healthy rivalries with communal support.
“At JTCC, we fed off each other’s drive and hunger. But it was something we all had within ourselves already not coming from much and being given an opportunity to change our lives and the people we love around us. Everything was always competitive, whether it was school, tennis, fitness or playing basketball on our lunch breaks,” says Baptiste, who is now based in Florida.
“At the same time, we were all family. While we were competing our asses off, we were having so much fun. I think having that competitive drive at a young age prepared me for being a dog in my matches day in and day out. NJTL, USTAF and JTCC’s programs supported me financially when I wasn’t able to. They believed in me so I could believe in myself and my dreams.”
I always go to College Park and hit whenever I visit home. There’s nothing better than being back on court 17 (our center court) and hitting with my friends who I can now call family. Hailey Baptiste
The past two years, Tiafoe has reached the fourth round of the US Open. He hasn’t lost sight of how NJTLs like JTCC played a part in his stepping on a stage the size of Arthur Ashe Stadium. If anything, Tiafoe’s upbringing made it easier to embrace the roles of brother, mentor, coach and friend. The reward is the unique opportunity to cultivate a domino effect in the DMV.
“I feel like, ‘Okay, well that guy's doing it, I'm rubbing elbows with this dude. Why can't I?’ Having an open communication line, that helps,” he says.
“I feel like it's certain type of energy every time I go back. So much love. I got a ton of my friends there keeping me humble. The reason I'm playing tennis is because of this city. I'll always want to be there, want to be a part of it, doing things for D.C.”
This week, Tiafoe and Baptiste will both star in the DMV at the Citi Open. The tournament’s beneficiary is an esteemed NJTL, the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation. Baptiste drew top seed Jessica Pegula, the WTA’s No. 7-ranked player, in a first-round match scheduled for Monday. Three years ago, she upset then world No. 14 Madison Keys in her tour-level debut.
Tiafoe, coming off a semifinal showing in Atlanta, has a bye as the No. 10 seed. If one had to guess how Big Foe will spend his Monday afternoon, a safe bet is finding him in the stands at Court John Harris supporting his little sister. It’s the DMV mentality.