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Local tennis star learning from experience

local tennis proCOLLEGE PARK - Francis Tiafoe may have lost in the round of 32 at the Junior French Open, but he made the experience worthwhile.

After getting upset as the number one seed, Tiafoe, 16, had the chance to study and practice with now 9-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal during last week’s tournament.  Tiafoe said the experience was unforgettable.

“I never thought that I’d be playing in the French Open,” Tiafoe said. “I mean, going on the court for the first round. It was a weird feeling. Words can’t even explain how happy I was to be out there.”

Tiafoe’s loss turned into a blessing, according to the CEO of the Junior Tennis Champion Club, Ray Benton.

“Can you imagine? This guy lives a charmed life. He gets beat in the second round of the French,” Benton said. “Big disappointment. But as a consolation prize, he gets to watch and be with Rafael Nadal. Magical, isn’t it?”

Tiafoe has been under the bright lights before. He won the Easter Bowl and the Orange Bowl—two of the biggest junior tennis events in the country. But he said neither of those tournaments comes close to playing in the French Open.

“A slam is a slam,” Tiafoe said. “Winning the Orange Bowl, everyone calls that the fifth slam, you know that was huge for me with the confidence and everything, but a slam is completely different.”

For Tiafoe, losing is always disappointing, but the chance to practice with Nadal has helped him realize what playing on the highest level was like and what he needs to do to get there.

“It wasn’t easy. (Nadal) doesn’t take many water breaks and that doesn’t help. He’s very intense,” Tiafoe said. “It was pretty phenomenal. It was just an honor to be across the net from him.”

Tiafoe shares some similarities with Nadal. They both have the same love for clay courts. Tiafoe said he enjoys playing on the surface because he is able to move quickly and take his time.

Tiafoe demonstrates one of the explosive qualities which has made Nadal so successful—the ability to move side to side at ease on the clay.

“When you’re playing high level tennis you’re going to be put in the corners a lot,” Tiafoe said. “You need to get out of there as fast as possible and hit a good shot. That’s helped me a lot over the last six months.

Tiafoe developed his skills with the mentorship and coaching of staff at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park. His primary coach, Misha Kouznetsov, and his secondary coach, Frank Salazar, have helped mold him into the tennis player he is today, Tiafoe said.

“I’ve worked with Misha since I was eight. He cared all the way through. And Frank came along and helped me a lot. Just want to give a big thanks to Misha and a big thanks to Frank,” Tiafoe said.

Tiafoe was introduced to the center when he was just three years old, he said. His father, Constant, was a maintenance worker for the facility. Francis and his brother went to work with their father every day and became exposed to exposed to tennis.

Salazar said he first met Tiafoe when the player was just four years old. He began working with Tiafoe during the last couple years, he said, because he thinks Tiafoe’s competitive edge and intangibles are appealing.

“He feels the game well and he competes really well. And he has a very advanced skill set. All those things will catch anyone’s eye in that respect,” Salazar said.

Tiafoe is a student of the game as much as he is a player, according to Salazar.

“He enjoys the game. He has a really positive outlook. He’s very interested in learning and getting better. He loves talking tennis and he loves watching tennis,” Salazar said.

Tiafoe said he has gotten offers to join other tennis clubs, but decided the Junior Tennis Champion Club is the best place for him because he is comfortable in Maryland.

“Misha has worked with me so long and we’ve been through so much, it would be wrong to leave him. Frank has helped me quite a bit,” Tiafoe said. “When things are going well, you don’t want to change anything. Dad always tells me if something isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The club provides opportunities for Tiafoe outside of tennis as well. Schooling is available through the club’s affiliation with Laurel Spring School. Vesa Ponkka, senior director of tennis at the club, said the club focuses on developing its members into people, not just tennis players.

“We want to create a great human being and player on and off the tennis court,” Ponkka said. “They learn the work ethic, they learn the respect, they learn great manners, they learn how to appreciate things. Those are the lifelong tools that they are going to learn from here.”

Ponkka also said academics are a priority at the center. “If a kid is behind in school, they cannot practice,” Ponkka said. “So this is not the place for only tennis players to hang around and play with tennis balls.”

Ponkka said the children in the club look up to Tiafoe as a role model. Additionally, staff treats Tiafoe like a normal person instead of a superstar.

“Enough people will tell him that anyway. This is his home. We expect him to be treated like somebody at home,” Ponkka said. “To us, he’s not the number one player in the world. To us, he’s Francis.”

Up next, Tiafoe will prepare to travel to London on June 17th to play a tournament in Roehampton. Next Tiafoe will compete in the Wimbledon junior tournament.

Tiafoe said he could not picture his life without tennis and the Junior Tennis Champions Club.

“Let’s get real, I’d be a normal kid. I’d go to public school. I would be sitting at home,” Francis said. “I definitely wouldn’t be internationally known. I would just be another kid. It’s unbelievable to me. Without tennis, I probably wouldn’t be anyone.”

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