Frances Tiafoe was always in search of a good game.
While literally growing up at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in suburban Washington, D.C., he paced the grounds of the 15-acre indoor/outdoor tennis complex, racquet in hand, until he found the best competition.
At 6 years old, he was too young to take those opponents on.
But he was old enough to learn.
“You’d see him sitting on the bench, but he was so small his feet didn’t even touch the ground,” recalled Vesa Ponkka, a founder of the JTCC who currently serves as the senior director of tennis. “But he’d watch the top players, and the coaches who were working with them, and was always completely focused. Then he’d go to the back wall of the facility and mimic everything he saw. A total student of the game.”
Tiafoe, the son of immigrants from the African nation of Sierra Leone, was the poor kid who fell in love with a rich man’s sport. He was the son of a tennis center custodian, wearing hand-me-downs while the kids in his orbit arrived at the JTCC in chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces.
Some of those kids, looking like a million bucks in their designer gear, teased Tiafoe.
“What’s with that same Pikachu shirt you wear every day?”
“Your big toe’s sticking out of the hole of your shoes — you need a new pair!”
“Why you wearing khaki shorts out here while playing tennis?”
Today, Tiafoe, 21, simply laughs.
He’s gone from living with his dad and twin brother in the tennis center’s storage room to a luxury apartment with an amazing view on the Southwest D.C. waterfront.
He’s grown from the kid soaking in tennis knowledge to becoming the future of American men’s tennis.
And that kid whose wardrobe lacked variety was featured in a GQ magazine profile and fashion shoot, rocking pricey clothes and accessories supplied by trendy designers, including Prada, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Giorgio Armani.
His style now matches his play: fierce.
“The circumstances in my life have definitely changed,” said Tiafoe, who is preparing to play in Wimbledon next week. “But those poor, poor jokes back then really hurt. It made you felt, in the back of your mind, that you weren’t cut from the same cloth.”
In many ways, however, Tiafoe’s cloth was different.
Constant Tiafoe and Alphina Kamara were immigrants from Sierra Leone who escaped the nearly decades-long civil war that began in the West African nation in 1991. They escaped Sierra Leone separately but met in suburban Washington, D.C., where Tiafoe worked as a day laborer and Kamara as a nurse. In 1998, in Maryland, Frances and Franklin were born.
About a year later, Constant Tiafoe began working on the construction crew for the JTCC, located next to the University of Maryland campus in College Park. When construction on the JTCC was completed, he was hired as the head custodian. To make more money, he took on extra hours. That created longer days, leading him to eventually convert a storage room just off the coach’s office into an overnight living space. Because Kamara worked night shifts in her nursing position, the kids spent most nights each week in the storage room.
“It was a pretty small room,” Tiafoe said. “There were two massage tables in there, and my father slept on one and me and my brother were small enough to share the other. My mom’s apartment was maybe three minutes away, and we’d stay there on weekends and other days when she was off.”
But the living situation wasn’t really a challenge for the Tiafoe brothers. It was the only life they knew.
“It’s what we had to do to survive,” Tiafoe said. “My parents were trying to make ends meet, and Pops gave us a chance to be in a good setting after school.”
The tennis center exposed the twins to a luxurious life that was foreign to them. Naturally, over time, Frances and Franklin became envious. That was until the two traveled to Sierra Leone for the first time, with their mother, who was visiting her home country to attend a wedding.
The Tiafoe brothers, who were 8 at the time of their first trip to Africa, realized their struggle was minuscule compared to the extreme poverty they witnessed in the villages of Sierra Leone.
“People living with lights off for a week, having to shower with cold water, just living a life that was harsh,” Tiafoe said. “The poverty there is crazy. You see it on TV, and then you see it up close and it’s like, damn. People were really hurting, and there was very little hope.”
Witnessing those conditions firsthand drove home two important lessons their father had drilled into their heads:
Don’t worry about how anybody else lives. And be grateful with what you have.
“Those kids were in the street playing soccer and they’re poor, but they’re not asking, ‘Why me?’ and they’re not feeling sorry for themselves even though I’m feeling sorry for them,” Tiafoe said. “For them, that’s all they know, and they were content. It made me understand that as an American citizen, I had opportunities and I was capable of doing whatever I wanted.”
At the age of 12, Tiafoe knew he wanted to be a professional tennis player.
By then he was working under the tutelage of Misha Kouznetsov, who spotted Tiafoe on his first day working as a tennis instructor at the JTCC in late 2006.
Before arriving in Maryland, Kouznetsov had been coaching junior players in Pennsylvania. At the JTCC, he was looking for new talent to develop, and Tiafoe stuck out.
“He wasn’t any more talented than the other 8-year-olds who were there,” Kouznetsov said. “But when I came to work in the morning, he was there. When I left at night, he was there. I saw a kid who was always there, and a kid who I could teach as much tennis as I wanted to.”
Within three months of their meeting, Kouznetsov had entered his new student in tournaments. And Tiafoe was beating the players in his age group, and higher.
“He was bigger in size than most kids his age, and more athletic,” Kouznetsov said. “By the time he was 10 he started beating kids who were 12 and older, and at that point I knew he could go on to be a professional one day.”
Looking back, Tiafoe, who worked with Kouznetsov until he was 17, appreciates all that his first coach did for his development.
“He dropped everything to work with me,” Tiafoe said. “He took me to tournaments, paid my entry fees, helped me succeed. It was a constant grind.”
When Tiafoe, at 12, told his parents that he wanted to play tennis professionally one day, he was met with an incredulous gasp.
“They thought I was crazy,” Tiafoe recalled. “But what are you going to say to a kid that’s 12, no? At the same time, you want the kid to be realistic. They had no desire of other African families who wanted their kids to be a lawyer or a doctor. … They just wanted me to be at the age I’m at now with a degree.”
Instead of following his parents’ advice, however, Tiafoe chose to receive guidance from actor Will Smith, who over the years has flooded the internet with advice videos. There was one that resonated with Tiafoe:
‘There’s no reason to have a plan B, because it distracts from plan A.’
Tiafoe, at 12, put all his chips on plan A.
“Getting a scholarship, graduate from college and then being a pro athlete was all a waste of time,” Tiafoe said. “They didn’t come from a tennis background, and they didn’t know what my skill level was.”
They would soon find out.
By the age of 14, Tiafoe was playing in tournaments overseas and gaining the admiration of international junior tennis fans by winning the under-14 world championship in France.
At 15, Tiafoe became the youngest player to win the prestigious Orange Bowl International Championship in Florida.
At 16, he was invited to compete in the qualifying draw of the 2014 US Open, just months after being summoned to participate in a hitting session with Rafael Nadal before the French Open.
At 17, the age at which he turned pro, Tiafoe made his Grand Slam main draw debut at the 2015 French Open. Playing that event as a wild card, Tiafoe became the first American to play singles in the main draw of the French Open at that age since Michael Chang and Pete Sampras did it in 1989.
As Tiafoe’s career caught fire, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports began a pursuit. Tiafoe was invited to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s On the Run Tour stop in Baltimore in the summer of 2014, before he played in his first Grand Slam, and got a chance to hang out with the power couple before and after the show.
Jay-Z, one of the most influential people on the planet, made his pitch. Tiafoe’s mother, still favoring an education over a professional career, was not swayed. Ultimately, Tiafoe signed with Roc Nation in 2015.
Tiafoe’s ascent was swift, to say the least, but it wasn’t always glamorous.
“I went out there at a young age and got exposed, took my beatings and paid my dues,” Tiafoe said. “It involved a lot of character, but this was all part of my plan.”
Tiafoe isn’t sure that what he’s accomplished would have been possible had he lived a life similar to the more fortunate kids at the tennis center.
“If I had the opportunity in life that they had, would I have wanted it that bad?” Tiafoe asked. “Would I have gone to school? Would I think it was bigger than tennis? Would I care as much as I do now?
“The life I led, even with all the struggles, was a blessing in disguise,” he added. “This was meant to happen.”
In the moment after Tiafoe’s five-set win over Andreas Seppi in the third round of the Australian Open, sending him to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, he bowed his head as he was overcome in what appeared to be complete exhaustion.
Then, after shaking Seppi’s hand, Tiafoe clearly got a second wind. He tossed his white headband, stripped off his shirt and proceeded to pound his chest before breaking out the high-kick silencer celebration made famous by LeBron James.
Tiafoe channels LeBron with his Australian Open celebrations.
The crowd loved it, breaking out in loud chants of “Ti-a-foe, Ti-a-foe …”
James enjoyed it and posted his appreciation on social media, which caught Tiafoe off guard. “I was like, ‘Clearly, he knows who I am,’ ” an excited Tiafoe said during an Australian Open news conference.
The James team later gave Tiafoe some new kicks.
But while many might see this year’s Australian Open run as the turning point of his career, Tiafoe points to the win over the player he idolized, Juan Martin del Potro (ranked No. 10 in the world at the time), at the 2018 Delray Beach Open. Tiafoe eventually won the tournament, for his first and only tour win to date.
“In 2009 I’m watching del Potro win the US Open, which [Roger Federer] had dominated for years, and I’m like, ‘He’s that dude,’ ” Tiafoe said. “I’ve idolized him since, and never thought I would play him or beat him. After beating him and winning that tournament, my entire mindset changed. I felt like that cemented my status as an ATP player.”
Tiafoe won that Delray Beach event as a wild card (the first wild-card winner). He cracked the top 50 in the world rankings last year, and this year he was ranked as high as 29th after his run at the Australian Open.
Tiafoe was such a hot commodity that Octagon, one of the world’s leading sports agencies, signed him as a client in 2018. “As one of the rising stars of American tennis,” Alastair Garland, a vice president at Octagon, said at the time of the signing, “his addition to our roster further solidifies Octagon’s legacy in men’s tennis.”
When Octagon invited Tiafoe to its Virginia offices in February, shortly after his impressive run at the Australian Open, the person with perhaps the biggest smile in the building was the woman who wanted him to pursue academics, not professional athletics.
“I’m so proud of him,” said Alphina Kamara, sitting on a sofa near her son Franklin as the images of Tiafoe flashed on the television monitors throughout the Octagon offices. “He’s always loved playing tennis, and now he has this great opportunity.”
In an era of tennis that’s been largely dominated over the past 15 years by Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Tiafoe wants to be in the group that’s next. He’s the youngest American to win an ATP event since Andy Roddick in 2002. But being considered one of the top American players (Tiafoe is ranked 39th; John Isner is the top-ranked American at No. 12) is not enough.
“I want to win Slams, and I want to be the best in the world,” Tiafoe said. “I’m living the dream that I tell kids about when I speak to them: It’s not where you are, it’s where you’re going. Be obsessed with being great.”
Unfortunately, greatness can’t be spoken into existence; you have to perform. Since Tiafoe’s run at the Australian Open, his play has been inconsistent. He played five matches over his next three tournaments, losing opening matches on three occasions.
Impressive runs at the Miami Open (quarterfinals) and at tournaments in Portugal (quarters) and Madrid (round of 16) gave hope that Tiafoe had turned the corner with this game. But Tiafoe lost his opening match at the French Open, throwing up several times during the five-set defeat.
Did success at Melbourne in January put pressure on his career?
“There’s no pressure,” Tiafoe said. “I haven’t been playing big-boy tennis. I’ll be fine.”
Before Tiafoe traveled to Europe for the French Open, he spent two weeks of preparation at the place that birthed his tennis career, the JTCC in College Park.
“He’s like a big brother to the kids here. It’s a place where he can be himself,” said Ponkka, the senior tennis director at the JTCC. “We have 150 kids here all the time, and they always hang around with him when he’s here. It’s great that he comes back.”
The center, the first Regional Training Center for the USTA’s high performance program, has produced a long list of NCAA champions as well as two notable professionals (Tiafoe and Vera Zvonareva, a two-time Grand Slam singles finalist, two-time Grand Slam doubles champion and Olympic bronze medalist).
As Ponkka walks around the complex these days, he’s closely watching the practices, games and habits of the young players who all aspire to have a professional career.
“I’m looking for the kid who loves the game so much that they can’t get enough,” Ponkka said. “I’m looking for the next Frances Tiafoe.”
That’s the quality, an extreme love for the game, that helped elevate the son of African immigrants to his place as the future of American tennis.
A place he’s reached against all odds.
“I really shouldn’t be here; I overcame some incredible odds to get to where I’m at today,” Tiafoe said. “Hopefully there are some young people who will look at me and understand that if you are obsessed in being great at what you do, you can escape any situation.”