Less than a month after announcing his decision to turn pro and sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports, 17-year-old Frances Tiafoe is already into his first main draw at a Grand Slam. The Maryland native has climbed up to No. 293 in the ATP Rankings this week, up from No. 1136 at the end of last year after a combined 12-3 record at the ATP Challenger Tour events in Sarasota (quarterfinals), Savannah (semifinals) and Tallahassee (final). After playing in the junior tournament at the French Open last year, Tiafoe will return to Roland Garros as a wild card in May 2015.
Sports Illustrated executive editor Jon Wertheim caught up with Tiafoe after his run to the final in Tallahassee to talk about his coach, his decision to sign with Roc Nation Sports and his beloved Washington Wizards.
What has your year been like so far? You turned pro, signed on with a new management agency, you’re spending more time in Boca Raton—what have these last 90 days been like for you?
Tiafoe: It’s been great, I’ve been playing a lot. Davis Cup helped me a lot. Being in that great atmosphere and having the chance to hit with top 50 guys everyday, being on the practice courts, that gave me a lot of confidence. And after that, I won and finally got a 15K and then I made the Sarasota quarters, Savannah semis and Tallahassee finals, so I think it gave me a ton of confidence. Hopefully one day I can be on the roster.
Fill in the blank: The one thing keeping me from being a top 40 player is...
Your serve can always get bigger—getting more points on my serve on a regular basis. From the ground, I’m pretty solid from both sides. My form really helps me a lot and my backend complements it. I think my serve and trying to come forward a little more are what I need to work on.
You chose to sign with Roc Nation Sports, and you’re obviously the first tennis prospect to sign with them. Can you talk a little about that decision?
They reached out to me after the French Open, I really thought it was a great opportunity because there are a ton of great athletes there already and I thought it could be great exposure and give me a lot of confidence.
Have you met Jay-Z?
Yeah, I’ve met Jay-Z twice. It was great—we talked backstage the first time for about 20 minutes and we had a good conversation, basically him telling me if I’m going to sign with them I really have to take it to the next level, be 100% into my tennis and keep the circle tight. He said become the best you can be.
When we visited you a year ago in Maryland, you had a two-coach system. What’s is your coaching situation like now?
Jose Higueras will oversee my coaching now. He’s coached great players to the likes of Roger Federer when he won the French in 2009, and Jim Courier. He’s a great player himself and I’ve worked with him a few times already, and I’m excited to take it to the next level with him.
When you’re in a place like Tallahassee, and you know that you’ve got the French Open coming up and you’ll probably have some summer events where you’ll get some main draw appearances, how do you keep that focus?
You stay hungry. You know your place and know that without the wildcard you would not be playing that tournament. You start to take those opportunities when you do get a wildcard, but also you’re allowed to say no—just because you get a wildcard doesn’t mean you have to say yes. Some weeks I think its OK to take a wildcard, some weeks its not. For example, I had a wildcard in the Sarasota 100K the first week, but I hadn’t played on clay the whole year and I thought it was good to play qualies, I played three tough matches in qualies to get in the main and that helped me throughout the rest of the week. I’m gonna have a good balance of that and my team and I sit down and talk about it, that we don’t have to take every wildcard.
You’re still a Kevin Hart fan, yes?
Were you as profoundly disappointed with Get Hard as I was?
Yeah I’m not too happy about that. But I have my Wizards up 1–0 in the playoffs, so I’m not too bummed about that.
Bradley Beal—the most underrated player in the NBA.
Yes, Real Deal Beal is unbelievable!