WASHINGTON, D.C. – Once a year, tennis star Frances Tiafoe has a chance to compete against some of the world’s best players in front of a hometown crowd at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C.
Originally from Hyattsville, the 20-year old said he feels the extra pressure to perform, especially hearing fans chant his name prior to every serve.
Down 5-3 in the second set in his round of 16 matches against the 11th-ranked tennis player in the world (David Goffin) in the John A. Harris Grandstand on Aug. 1, Tiafoe looked directly into the crowd at four young boys who were cheering inspirational words to him. He did not know them, but thanked their applause while attempting to battle back against the more superior Goffin.
However, the damage was done as Tiafoe prepared for the final serve shaking his head in disgust. Despite the score, with the children watching, Tiafoe tried to continue playing through the set without getting more visibly frustrated.
“I don’t want to show a 0-3 (game) example,” Tiafoe said. “I’ve got a good fan base here in Washington, D.C., and a lot of guys look up to me. I got to do the standard stuff, not just on the court but off the court…The way you do everything because obviously now, you are a public figure and everything you do has consequences, so you have to be the best version of you possible.”
Tiafoe lost against Goffin in straight sets, 6-0 6-3, but the early exit out of the Citi Open is a minor bump in the road for the county native.
With 21 victories and a singles title this season, the 20-year-old is slowly building a strong resume and stature as one of the best young players in the tennis world today.
This is a far cry from his younger training days at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park.
His father, who worked as a day laborer during the construction of the facility and transitioned to an on-site custodian, would bring Tiafoe and his twin brother Franklin to train at four years old.
Vesa Ponkka, one of the center’s founders and the senior director of tennis, recalled seeing Tiafoe quickly becoming enamored with the game. Tiafoe is still revered in College Park, and he is known to make several appearances throughout the year to train at their facilities before major tournaments.
“He just could not get enough tennis and would spend every spare moment on the court, which was very valuable,” Ponkka said. “When he was about 12, we could see that he was becoming a very good competitor and he liked the pressure and to play in front of the people. And together with his mentors, coaches and staff, we thought ‘hey, he may become a very good tennis player,’ and from that moment on, he started to win everything.”
As he got older, Tiafoe partnered up with tennis coach Misha Kouznetsov, who called their relationship a “father-son mentorship” as they traveled to play tournaments. Tiafoe was quickly progressing from a young amateur to becoming the No. 2 in the junior rankings. He won 2013 Orange Bowl junior title at 15 years old, become the youngest champion in tournament history and finished his junior career winning 55 matches.
Years later, Tiafoe has been slowly coming of age as a player since turning pro in late 2014 and the 2018 season has been his best.
In February, Tiafoe defeated No. 4 ranked Juan Martin del Potro in Round of 16 on his way of capturing his first tournament victory at the Delray Beach Open. At 20, he became the youngest American tennis player to win a championship since Andy Roddick won at 19 in a 2002 tournament in Houston, Texas.
He made another tournament finals appearance in April in the Millennium Estoril Open in Portugal and made it to the round of 32 in Wimbledon in July after defeating Fernando Verdasco in the first round. It was his first victory over a seeded opponent at a major tournament, improving his ranking status to No. 41 heading into the annual tournament at Rock Creek Park.
While overall improvements were made to his game, the most notable change is the power behind his serve. Against Goffin, the power of Tiafoe’s serves reached speeds over 120 mph, with the highest going to 131. The fast serve left Goffin flat-footed as the ball flew past him for an ace, one of the few moments Tiafoe showed his progression as a player during the loss.
“(Tiafoe) has done well and I am proud of him,” Kouznetsov said. “He’s definitely gotten stronger, his serves have improved, he’s a big boy and his game has definitely developed over time.”
As he continues to improve, he has received praise for his performances from his peers. American John Isner, who currently ranks No. 1 in the serve ratings, praised Tiafoe after their five-set second round encounter in the 2016 U.S. Open saying, “He was handling my serve better than anyone, really, maybe outside of Novak (Djokovic).”
“Tennis is so demanding nowadays physically, mentally and emotionally; you have to be totally matured before you have a chance,” Ponkka said. “It is actually very rare at the moment for someone who is 20 like Tiafoe and a few other young players who are doing this well because everybody gets better in their mid-to-late 20s, so the game has changed a lot in the past ten years.”
Moving forward, Tiafoe is shifting his focus towards Rogers Cup in Toronto, Canada, where he will take on Marco Cecchinato in the first round. With the final Grand Slam major of the year, the U.S. Open, slowly approaching, Tiafoe said he hopes to carry the moment of the whole season to end the year on a positive note, with the goal to compete in the later stages of the tournament.
“It’s nice to get to the round of 16, but I am upset with the way I went out this year with an unacceptable performance,” Tiafoe said. “I think it’s been a great season; one loss does not change the season. This one obviously is going to be a tough one to swallow but you try to bounce back from it, and I am just going to keep moving forward.”