Unlikely prodigy Francis Tiafoe hyped as U.S. tennis' next great success

Friday May 23rd, 2014

According to his coach, Francis Tiafoe isn't ready to make the leap to the ATP, but there's plenty of time.
Manuela Davies/SI

It's a glorified broom closet, really. Call it a small office, if you want to be charitable. But the 125-square-foot room in a corner of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., may one day end up on a register of tennis landmarks.

Francis Tiafoe often repaired to the room while his father, Constant, worked at this nonprofit tennis academy a long forehand from the University of Maryland campus. As an émigré from Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, Constant took a job helping to construct the tennis complex. When it was finished, the owners were so impressed with his work ethic and handyman skills that they hired him as the head of maintenance. While Constant put in long hours sweeping the courts, cleaning the locker rooms and maintaining the grounds, his young twin sons, Francis and Franklin, amused themselves in the small room. The three Tiafoes even lived there for stretches as Constant tried to save enough of his $21,000 salary to rent an apartment. (The boys' mother, Alphina, a nurse's aide, resided with relatives in a neighboring town.)

At the age of six or so, Francis and Franklin reckoned that as long as they were spending so much time at the club, they might as well grab a racket, join the other kids and whack around some tennis balls. For Franklin it was diversion. For Francis it was seduction.

"I just wanted to play and play and play," he says. "When everyone left, I'd stay on the court and hit serves or play against the wall."

A young teaching pro at the club, Misha Kouznetsov -- a recent arrival from Russia who knew the U.S. immigrant experience firsthand -- took on Francis as a special project. He saw the kid's enthusiasm and native talent.

"He was taller than most kids his age, he had feel, he had hand-eye coordination, and all he wanted to do was play," says Kouznetsov. "I figured if I could teach him good technique, he would have a chance."

These might seem like unlikely origins for a tennis star, but then again, those standards have changed. Venus and Serena Williams, of course, hailed from the blight of Compton, Calif. On a small Mediterranean island, Rafael Nadal was brought to tennis by an eccentric uncle who converted him from a natural righty to a southpaw. And in Switzerland, Roger Federer was raised by middle-class parents who wanted him to play less tennis, not more, and handed down no genes that would presage athletic greatness.

In any case, Francis Tiafoe has become the brightest U.S. tennis prospect in a generation. He has won the 18-and-under titles at the top two U.S. junior events, the Orange Bowl and the Easter Bowl, becoming the first player to pull off that double since John McEnroe in 1976. Though he doesn't turn 17 until next January, Francis is the No. 2-ranked junior in the world.

"I'll say it: I want to be the next great American player," he asserts.

Lord knows, his stardom can't come soon enough. Whether the cause is globalization, the USTA's regrettable record in talent development or simply a regression to the mean, these are lean times for U.S. men's tennis. A generation ago the U.S. laid claim to half the players in the top 10. Today, 29-year-old John Isner is the lone American male in the top 50. Not since Andy Roddick's 2003 U.S. Open victory has a U.S. male won a major title.

In part because of this, Francis comes swaddled in thick layers of hype. The phrase "next great hope" tends to ride shotgun beside his name. Already he has practiced with full-time pros such as Sam Querrey. ("To be honest," reports Francis, "I didn't feel rushed. We were hitting pretty much the same.") Earlier this year Francis played at Madison Square Garden as the opening act for an Andy Murray-Novak Djokovic exhibition match. With his upside and backstory, Francis is potential marketing gold, and as a result he has attracted the attention of every tennis agent worth his leather-bound folder.

The hype is not without justification. Already 6' 1", Francis hits the ball brutally, especially on the forehand side, opening up the court and dictating points. He also possesses an abundance of touch: As much satisfaction as he derives from pasting winners, he claims to get still more gratification from unfurling a clever drop shot or winning a point with superior strategy. Unlike so many Americans, who thrive on hardcourts but for whom other surfaces might as well be quicksand, Francis lists clay as his preferred surface. (Good thing: He is scheduled to play the French Open junior event for the first time this year.)

More indication that the kid is sui generis: His greatest strength may be mental. He wins most of his close matches, betraying little in the way of nerves and summoning his best tennis when the situation calls for it.

"He's not afraid to rise to the occasion, and he wants the biggest situations possible," says Frank Salazar, who co-coaches Francis with Kouznetsov. "You really have to like the competitiveness."

Francis Tiafoe will play in the French Open juniors event for the first time this year.
Manuela Davies/SI

And while Francis' factory setting is on aggression, he is also happy to play defense, unglamorous as that may be.

"Griiiiinding," he says, smiling, and in a voice with a slightly detectable West African lilt. "I don't mind it at all. I mean, sometimes you have to go to work."

For a kid pegged as the future, Francis spends a lot of time in the past. "He's very into tennis history, and even when he was younger he was always into classic matches," says Kouznetsov.

"We'd check into a hotel, and when the other kids were watching Cartoon Network he'd watch Tennis Channel."

Ask Francis which players provided source material for his game, and he says nothing about the easy grace of Federer or the uncompromising persistence of Nadal.

"I'd go with [Juan Martín] del Potro, because of the forehand," says Francis. "But I also really like Puerta. Ever heard of him?" (You're forgiven if you answered in the negative; Mariano Puerta of Argentina retired almost a decade ago, having won a total of three titles in his career.)

When he's not playing tennis or attending school -- he'll graduate next year from an academy that's part of the JTCC -- Francis spends time with his brother. Franklin is a "normal kid" (according to his twin) at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., and the two still share a room that's cluttered largely with Francis' trophies. Francis devotes plenty of time to the YouTube gods, trolling for comedy acts. The top three in his rankings: 1) Chris Rock; 2) Kevin Hart; 3) Chris Tucker.

Like prize recruits in other sports, Francis has been the object of poaching attempts by other academies, including hothouses in Florida and Arizona. He decided to stay at the JTCC, where he receives a full scholarship, the equivalent of roughly $40,000 in aid. Whatever the location lacks in climate, the academy makes up for in other areas. It boasts that all 50 kids in the elite junior development program will either play professionally or get college scholarships. There's also a strong public-service component: Each player must commit to a weekly volunteer project and spend time mentoring younger kids in the program.

"It's the best place for me," Francis says.

Constant stopped working at the club in 2011 and now works part-time at a car wash in suburban D.C. But he, too, is thrilled with his situation. Back in Africa his family worked the diamond mines -- "like the ones in the movie Blood Diamond," he says. That his kids are growing up in the comforts of a suburban racket club feels almost like a hallucination.

"You come [to the JTCC] and it's a safe environment that allows you to succeed," Constant says. "Talk about opportunity. Whatever happens next, I already feel like this is winning the lottery."

In tennis, more so than in other sports, success as a junior hardly guarantees success in the pros. Future champions on the order of Federer, Roddick and Stefan Edberg won the Orange Bowl; so did Todor Enev, Tim Neilly and Robin Roshardt, none of whom made the transition. The predictive value of a teenager's results is shaky at best, and Salazar knows this firsthand. A plain-spoken Texan whose motto is "less talk, more action," he was once the world's top-ranked junior. He went on to play at Clemson but blew out his shoulder playing low-level Challengers events and never made it as a pro. Now part of his job is to gently remind Francis that, for all his promise, he has a long way to go before achieving his ultimate goals.

What must Francis upgrade in order to make the segue to the ATP Tour? Salazar flashes a look that says, Pull up a seat: "Transition. Flexibility. Strength. There's a lot to improve on." Then he pauses.

"But Francis has a sense of this," he says, "and here's the good thing: There's plenty of time."

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