Local rising tennis star makes name for himself

August 28, 2018 - Frances Tiafoe in action against Adrian Mannarino at the 2018 US Open. Courtesy of USOpen.org

By CHRIS TULP — Hyattsville’s Frances Tiafoe, 20, just had his best finish at a major tennis grand slam tournament, reaching the third round, the final 32.

At press time, Tiafoe was ranked 41st by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), while his highest ranking since turning pro in 2015 is 38th. He is coming off his best performance at a grand slam tournament, at Wimbledon in London, that took place from July 2 to July 15. He also plays for the D.C.-based Washington Kastles, one of six teams competing in World Team Tennis.

Tiafoe may be having success at the professional level, but it wasn’t exactly easy for his family.

Tiafoe’s parents are from Sierra Leone, a country in Africa with a population of about 7.7 million people. His father, Constant, emigrated from Sierra Leone to London in 1988 and then to Maryland in 1993. His mother, Alphina, won the U.S. government’s visa lottery and secured a green card to work in the U.S. She left Sierra Leone in 1996. During this time, there was a civil war in Sierra Leone that led Frances’s parents to continue to seek a better life elsewhere.

Constant started working as a maintenance man at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park. Once the Tiafoe family started growing, tennis quickly became the sport of choice for Tiafoe and his twin brother, Franklin. They have been playing tennis since they were three years old.

Tiafoe would eventually get accepted into the JTCC tennis academy. At age 8, Tiafoe began working closely with Misha Kouznetsov. On Kouznetsov’s first day working at the JTCC, he met Frances.

“October 23, 2006,” Kouznetsov recalled. “I still remember the exact date.”

Kouznetsov would go on to coach Tiafoe for nine years. He and his wife took Tiafoe to his tennis tournaments, paid for him to play and sponsored him the whole time.

Constant was supportive of Tiafoe’s desire to pursue a tennis career. According to a Players’ Tribune article penned by Tiafoe, his father told him, “If you want to do it, then do it!”

Tiafoe’s mother, on the other hand, did not want him to play professionally. The Players’ Tribune article also mentioned that Tiafoe and his mother fought, even after he turned pro and started making money. She ultimately wanted Tiafoe and Franklin to attend college, but that didn’t happen for Tiafoe. He had one plan, and he had a vision of chasing his dreams.

Tiafoe experienced success at a young age. He entered the Orange Bowl, a junior event, and at age 15 became the tournament’s youngest-ever champion. To give this achievement more context, Roger Federer, whom Tiafoe grew up idolizing, won the tournament at age 17.

That early success has continued for Tiafoe. He played against Federer in the first round of the 2017 U.S. Open and won two sets. Although he lost the best-of-five match, Tiafoe proved that he can play with the best. At that time, Tiafoe was ranked 70th in the ATP rankings.

“It took me five minutes to see that he would be a special player,” Kouznetsov said. “He is very chill, relaxed, and he just focuses on doing his thing. At first, he just wanted to play and did not quite have the means, but later down the road, he began to enjoy working hard.”

Tiafoe’s brother Franklin, who played tennis at DeMatha and is now a professional himself, spoke about Tiafoe’s best qualities that have helped him get to where he is today.

“He has a good personality and is family-oriented,” Franklin said. “This has helped him stay focused on what his goals are.”

Franklin continued, “We watched our parents struggle, so we want to do good by them because they worked hard to support us.”

Chris Tulp partook in a summer internship with the Hyattsville Life & Times.

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