Mixed Blessings

by: Peter Bodo | June 02, 2014

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PARIS—American hopes at Roland Garros continued to evaporate today, as surely as the moisture dissipates from these red clay courts each time the sun peeks through. To add insult to the injury represented by losing the last American singles contender, Sloane Stephens, and the best doubles team in the world, the Bryan brothers, Francis Tiafoe also lost.

Francis Tiafoe?

If you don’t know about Tiafoe yet, you probably will soon. He’s just 16, but already number two in the ITF junior rankings. A solidly built 6’1”, broad-shouldered youngster, he’s an Orange Bowl champion who’s spent most of his young life voraciously consuming tennis in all its myriad forms. He also happens to be a terrific “human interest” story, although that can be a mixed blessing when it comes to the the general need to develop in stages, shielded from an overload of publicity.

Tiafoe is living a stock “immigrant’s dream” story made all the more interesting and poignant because his roots are African. His parents, Francis Sr. and Alphina, are from the West African country of Sierra Leone, although they met in the U.S. Francis Sr. was a laborer during the construction of the Junior Tennis Champion’s Center in suburban Maryland, which has emerged as one of the leading tennis academies in the country.

Francis Sr. swung a hammer so enthusiastically that the management of the new center asked him to stay on as as their maintenance man. He had twin sons, Francis and Franklin (who plays only casual tennis).

From the earliest age, Francis was omnipresent at the tennis courts, and eventually the coaches working with the elite players took note of his enthusiasm. Given his connection with the club and his backstory, it was almost a given that he would get help if he responded well to formal training.

Did he ever.

Vessa Ponkka, senior coach and director of tennis at the Champion’s Center, told Liz Clarke of the Washington Post that Tiafoe represented a “perfect storm” of potential.

“He is hungry. He has nothing else. And his love of the game is so deep and so pure. Some players love winning. Some players love money. Some players love traveling. He loves everything about this game. He loves even the smell of the new balls.”

Unfortunately for Tiafoe, this perfect storm blew itself out on Court 17 today, as he was beaten in the second round, 6-3, 2-6, 3-6, by a a bigger and more powerful challenger, Germany’s Jan Choinski.

“I never saw the guy before,” Tiafoe said afterward. “I just knew that he was crazy tall and had a big serve. It’s tough playing a guy with a serve that big. I was returning well in the first and part of the second set, then I stopped doing that.”

At the same time, Tiafoe wasn’t getting the juice he wanted out of his own serve, even though he put a solid 64 percent of his first deliveries into play.

“I was lacking first serves today,” he said. “And when I hit a good serve and get first strike with my forehand, that’s when I’m best. But if the guy is seeing a lot of second serves and making me play a lot of defense, it’s not easy for me to win that way.”

But Tiafoe’s biggest problem was the pressure he felt as the top seed. He’d managed it well in his first-round win, but he said it was mainly because that opponent, Clement Larriere of France, didn’t play well enough to make it kick in.

“Being the number one seed, you’re thinking you don’t want to lose in the second round,” he admitted. “But the guy today was playing unbelievable tennis, and that obviously made me feel the pressure. I think all those emotions you feel inside have to come out, and today they did—more than usual.”

All in all, Tiafoe seems like a level-headed youth who probably will take valuable lessons from his experience today. Coached toward conceding that there were a lot of positives to be taken from the fact that he was just 16 but seeded No. 1 here, he refused to play along. “Not really. I wasn’t expecting this tournament to end like this.”

In fact, the only consolation Tiafoe took from this experience was mined from the words of one of his coaches, Misha Kouznetsov, who told the dejected boy: “Remember, it’s not about now. It’s about later.”

“That was the right thing to say,” Tiafoe volunteered. “It’s not the time to be walking around feeling sorry for myself. I just have to take some time, slow down, get back on the practice court and work hard to get confident again.”

Meanwhile, America waits for the next chapter of this appealing story. As Tiafoe said, “it’s about later.”

For more on Francis Tiafoe, read our Spring 2014 Juniors Quarterly at Tennis Tuesday.

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