Francis Tiafoe: Tennis' most improbable prodigy

Last updated 09:20 19/05/2014

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There are no spectators, apart from a handful of coaches, wives and on-the-prowl agents, when 16-year-old Francis Tiafoe takes the court in Vero Beach, Florida. There is no scoreboard, nor officials to call the lines as the country's best junior boy warms up.

The Futures Circuit is the lowest rung on the ladder of professional tennis, a minor league proving ground where promising amateurs, tapped-out pros and maxed-out journeymen claw over ranking points and US$10,000 purses. It is a precipitous step down from the emerald-green splendour of Wimbledon and pampered environs of champions such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Then again, the US$75-a-night oceanfront motel where Tiafoe and the other players are staying is a considerable step up from the spare room at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. That's where Tiafoe often lived as a child, sleeping on a massage table with his twin brother when their father, who worked there as the maintenance man, had no other place to call home.

In a sporting narrative as improbable as that of Venus and Serena Williams, Tiafoe, the son of immigrants from the West African nation of Sierra Leone, has emerged as the nation's most buzzed-about tennis prodigy.

In December, the Maryland-born teen became the youngest player to win the Orange Bowl, the most prestigious international title for 18-and-under boys, achieving the feat at 15 - more quickly than even Federer, John McEnroe or Bjorn Borg managed. And when the French Open juniors tournament gets underway in Paris on June 1, Tiafoe (pronounced Tee-AH-foe) will be the top-seeded boy.

In a country yearning for a homegrown men's tennis star, this puts Tiafoe under immense pressure to deliver on his promise, to justify the countless hours he has devoted to mastering the game and the hundreds of thousands of dollars that tennis centre benefactors have invested in his young career.

Or, as he puts it: "It's not like everything was given to me. I had to really work hard for it and earn it." But, he adds, "I'm very thankful for what I have. I don't want to let anyone down."

In many ways, this broad-shouldered, 6-foot-1 phenom with eight-pack abs is still a boy. Tiafoe doesn't yet drive, has a 9 pm bedtime and shaved for the first time in January. But he possesses a missile of a forehand, a full complement of shots and tactical savvy beyond his years. And he brings all of that to bear in his opening match in Vero Beach, where he schools 30-year-old Oleg Dmitriev, a Russian who has competed on the pro circuit since Tiafoe was 3.

Tiafoe starts their first-round match slowly, feeling out the muscular Russian's game. He blasts a forehand winner to notch his first service break. And each time Dmitriev strings together a few points, Tiafoe switches tactics. If the Russian is feasting on pace, Tiafoe counters with topspin-slathered moon balls. If he plants himself behind the baseline to take big wallops at the ball, Tiafoe flicks drop-shots that die upon clearing the net. And when Dmitriev comes unglued, cursing his poor play and unlucky bounces, Tiafoe proves steadier, displaying the same gap-toothed smile whether he wins a point or loses it.

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And he does all this, en route to a 6-3, 6-3 victory, without a single glance toward Misha Kouznetsov, his coach and mentor since age 8, for advice or affirmation.

"I'm only 16, but I'm like 35 in tennis years," Tiafoe explains afterward between bites of a grilled chicken-and-cheese sandwich. "I've been on a tennis court all my life. The only thing that's been there longer is the net post."

- - -

There was a lightning-quick pace to the construction of the Junior Tennis Champions Center - the Washington region's premier tennis training facility - when Francis Tiafoe Sr signed on as a day labourer in 1999.

Back then, he went by the name of Constant Zubairu, the moniker of a diplomat uncle he used when he left Sierra Leone, first for London in 1988 and then for Maryland in 1993. He's only recently begun using his given name, the one he shares with his talented son.

With the tennis complex scheduled to open in months, the top priority was getting a roof over the 15 indoor courts so lessons could go on rain or shine. Tiafoe Sr. quickly set himself apart from the crew of four Africans and 50 or so Hispanics, working quickly and doing whatever was needed, says Ken Brody, the wealthy banker and philanthropist who founded the tennis center to help young players earn college scholarships.

"He had a terrific attitude," Brody says. He and others were so impressed that when the construction was finished they offered Tiafoe Sr, the father of 1-year-old twins, a job as the center's maintenance man.

Chronically strapped for cash, Tiafoe Sr turned it into two jobs: keeping the complex clean by day and taking care of the clay courts by night. He had never played tennis in his life. But he quickly learned to water and roll the courts and sometimes completely resurface them, hauling dozens of 75-pound bags of clay to each court.

It was while working these round-the-clock shifts that he moved into a vacant 10-by-14-foot room at the tennis complex. He slept and took his showers there, ordered in food and stored his clothes all over the complex - on hangers, in a suitcase, in a shed outside. And during stretches when the mother of his sons, Alphina Kamara, worked night shifts as a licensed practical nurse, the boys stayed with him.

The twins' tennis education started so long ago that neither has a first memory of holding a racket or taking a lesson. As toddlers they were pushed around in their stroller by club members who doted on them while their father worked. A gregarious man with a big smile and long dreadlocks, Tiafoe Sr became an unofficial ambassador of the Junior Tennis Champions Center, greeting visitors, detailing members' cars, even taking up the game himself as a former high school sprinter who missed the thrill of competing. And when his boys were 5, he got them enrolled, free of charge, in the clinic for the littlest children.

From the start, Francis was more consumed by the sport than Franklin. In nearly every other respect, Franklin was the trailblazer. He was the first twin to be born. The first to crawl. The first to walk.

"Francis watched," his mother says, "and did it the next day."

On the tennis court, their ability diverged early. But according to their father, there was no jealousy or rivalry. "Franklin just wanted to play," says Tiafoe Sr, now 53. " He didn't take it seriously. He just wasn't too interested."

Francis only grew more consumed.

When Kouznetsov left at around 8.15 each night, he'd spot Francis on the outdoor courts hitting serves past dusk. When he arrived at 8 am, he'd find him hitting balls against a wall.

And each afternoon, once his age-group lesson ended, Francis would grab a bucket of balls and, on an adjacent court, mimic the academy's elite crop of 12-year-olds as they got more rigorous instruction.

"Oh, it's just Francis," Frank Salazar, the coach who worked with the elite players, recalls thinking. "He's here every day."

What Salazar was slow to realise was that whenever Francis wandered the grounds, racket in hand, or perched on a bench overlooking the courts, his legs dangling shy of the ground, he was soaking in everything about tennis. His passion for the sport was insatiable.

"He said to me when he was 6 years old: 'I want to be great in this sport,' " his father remembers. " 'I want to be the best to ever come from this place.' "

Kouznetsov first noticed Francis at 8, struck by how intently he listened and how hard he tried. A 24-year-old coach who had recently joined the staff, he was looking for a child to mentor. He wanted to offer a young player the same kind of help he'd gotten when he was 15 and sent from Moscow to a South Florida tennis academy with a student visa, a partial scholarship, US$60 and no English, apart from "I go to school," and "I play tennis."

Kouznetsov told Francis he'd take him to a tournament if he kept working hard. And when the day came, he printed a certificate declaring, "Congratulations! You are going to your first tournament!" He got him a new pair of shoes, an Under Armour shirt to replace the Pokemon Pikachu shirt Francis always wore, paid his entry fee and drove him downtown to Washington's Mall Open, where Francis won his first title at age 9.

"That was huge!" the coach recalls with a smile. "It was as big as winning the Orange Bowl."

Nights before out-of-town tournaments, Francis would stay with Kouznetsov and his girlfriend at their apartment in Laurel, Md., where he only wanted to watch the Tennis Channel.

"I was like, 'Dude! Cartoon Network?' " Kouznetsov says. "No! He'd sit there watching Tennis Channel, analysing."

Kouznetsov was tough on Francis, demanding that he run laps if he hadn't worked hard during his matches. And he reminded Francis that something far bigger than a game was at stake.

"What's your dream?" he'd ask the boy after a loss.

"I want to be number one in the world," Francis would reply.

"Are you going after your dream?" the coach would ask.

"No," his protege would admit.

But after victories or an especially good effort, the coach bought Francis ice cream as a reward. And on that tough-love, sweet-tooth barter system, the young coach and player climbed the national age-group rankings together, their tournament travel resulting in a series of firsts for Francis: At 11, his first trip to California; at 12, his first stay at a hotel with an ocean view; at 13, his first trip to France, where he won Les Petits As, the prestigious under-14 world championship; and, after winning a junior tournament in Florida, his first ride on a Jet Ski.

- - -

His parents - who met in Maryland almost two decades ago and married last year - saw none of this. They have led a precarious financial existence since arriving in the United States.

Alphina Tiafoe, 46, works double shifts on weekends at a Bethesda, Maryland, nursing home and goes to school three days a week with the goal of becoming a registered nurse. Tiafoe Sr, who left the tennis centre after 11 years in an unsuccessful attempt to launch a business, works at a Hyattsville, Maryland, car wash detailing cars. He does his best to augment his base pay with tips, but he has struggled with debt, court records show.

He and Alphina have sometimes had trouble paying the rent on their apartment in Riverdale Park, Maryland. They own one car, a Toyota Camry, that Alphina drives to work. Her husband commutes to the car wash on a used bike.

The couple can't afford to travel to tournaments to see their son play. Asking the tennis center for help is out of the question, Tiafoe Sr says, given the roughly US$400,000 that has been invested in his son's coaching, gear and tournament travel over the years.

For Alphina, a deeply religious woman who concedes she knows little about tennis, it is enough to see Francis bring home trophies - not because of the titles they represent but because they make him so happy. But for her tennis-loving husband, it can be frustrating to miss matches or watch them online instead of in person.

"When your kid is top in the nation, top in the world, maybe, and you don't have the opportunity to sit there, it's tough," Tiafoe Sr. says. "But I let that go, because there is time for everything. I have to be grateful because if it's not for this tennis center, we are not having this conversation."

As much as he'd like to claim the tennis center deserves full credit for Tiafoe's success, Vesa Ponkka, its senior coach and director of tennis, calls Tiafoe a product of "a perfect storm" - something that no amount of expert coaching or endless drills could likely replicate.

"He is hungry. He has nothing else. And his love of the game is so deep and so pure," Ponkka says of Tiafoe, with palpable awe.

"Some players love winning. Some players love money. Some players love traveling. He loves everything about this game. He loves even the smell of the new balls. He loves how the ball sounds on the strings. He loves these things that actually are much more important than money or that stuff. He plays the game for the right reasons. And none of us taught him that. It's just that tennis was his best friend, and he took care of his best friend."

- - -

Tennis is rife with cautionary tales of promising juniors who never panned out.

A career can short-circuit for myriad reasons: if losses fuel self-doubt rather than stoke competitive fire, if a highly touted teen is driven more by a parent's obsession than his own, if injury intervenes or if the pressure proves crippling.

That's why Patrick McEnroe, general manager of player development for the US Tennis Association, typically declines to comment on promising juniors, having seen the wreckage during his own climb up the rankings in the shadow of his older brother John and as an ESPN tennis commentator.

He makes an exception for Tiafoe.

"He is definitely the real deal," McEnroe says. "He has got all the tools. And he has a real good sense of how to play - what shot to hit at the right time, when to sense his opponent is feeling the pressure so he doesn't have to do too much, or when he has to do a little more. I often see kids who may hit the ball really well but don't know how to play the game. Francis does. And he has a tremendous amount of joy and passion when he plays."

More than a decade has passed since an American man won one of the sport's four major titles or reached No. 1 in the world. Andy Roddick, who retired in 2012, was hailed as the saviour of American men's tennis upon winning the Orange Bowl in 1999, the year after Federer. And he went on to win the US Open and reach No. 1 in 2003, shortly after turning 21.

But two other American boys who won Orange Bowls have been relegated to sporting obscurity: Brian Baker, who compiled an 18-30 record in the pro ranks, and Timothy Neilly, who peaked at No. 852.

McEnroe worries about the burden that comes with Tiafoe's world-calibre junior results. "Let's be honest: We're at a pretty big low in men's tennis at the top right now. Obviously part of the reason Francis is getting so much attention is tied into that. He's our next great hope. That's a lot for anybody to deal with."

This summer represents a major test. He'll face the world's best 18-and-under players in the three remaining junior Grand Slam events: the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. But he's also entering a handful of pro events to test himself against grown men, as he did in Vero Beach, where he lost in the second round to 27-year-old Gregory Ouellette, a former all-American at Florida who's now ranked 550th in the world.

Humility is an effective teacher, Kouznetsov says, and Tiafoe will face even stiffer competition in the top-flight pro events he is eyeing later in the summer.

Because he is an amateur, Tiafoe can accept only nominal prize money to cover his travel expenses. But his parents are in no rush for their son to turn pro, despite the huge financial windfall it might represent. In fact, they would like to see him attend college first.

Tennis may indeed translate to a lucrative career, his father acknowledges. But how long will that career last, he asks: A decade? Fifteen years? What next, without a college education?

"When you're good in sports in this country, the money comes so fast you don't even know what to do," Tiafoe Sr. says. "But the education has got to be there. When money comes, that's when people come, too. Managers, advisers. So you should be able to tell them what to do. You should be smarter than them; not them smarter than you."

- - -

At the family's brick apartment building, the future of American tennis and his brother share a bedroom so small it barely holds the twin beds and 10 pairs of tennis shoes lined up neatly against a wall.

The twins do their homework side by side at the dining room table. On a recent night, Francis, a sophomore at the tennis academy's school, which he has attended since fifth grade, works on an English assignment. And Franklin, who recently transferred from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, to DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, with financial help from a tennis centre mentor, studies biology.

Behind them, a large glass cabinet is stocked with tennis trophies, photos of the twins and one of Alphina in her white graduation gown from the technical institute she attended in Sierra Leone. Three framed pictures hang on the wall: one of the twins, one of Barack and Michelle Obama at the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president, and one of Alphina and the boys, then 8, dressed for a wedding they attended during a 2005 trip to Freetown, their mother's home town and Sierra Leone's capital.

Her beloved country was in chaos when Alphina left in 1996. A civil war that would claim 50,000 and displace millions was raging. Armed rebels destroyed entire communities and cut off the hands of boys and men deemed their enemy.

"I was going to a funeral every week," recalls Alphina, who worked for Sierra Leone's military forces in a documents office. Young men she knew from work or her neighbourhood were picked randomly to go fight the rebels in outlying villages. Few returned.

Before the rebels could overrun Freetown, she won the U.S. government's visa lottery and a coveted green card to work in the United States. "I was looking for a better life," says Alphina, who became a US citizen a few years ago. "A better future."

Two years after she left Sierra Leone, her mother and the rest of her family fled to Guinea to escape the bloodshed. When her mother finally called Maryland to tell her daughter she was safe, she described children as young as 10 wielding guns.

Today, blessings are more of a topic in the Tiafoe home than Sierra Leone's brutal past. As Alphina often reminds her Maryland-born boys: "You guys are lucky. You were both born here. You have everything in your hands."

- - -

The night before Tiafoe leaves for Europe to start preparing for the French Open, the 16-year-old steps onto a tennis court at the Swedish ambassador's residence in Washington. He is a featured guest at the Junior Tennis Champions Center's annual gala, invited to stage an exhibition for the 330 guests, who include former congressmen, business titans and well-heeled tennis supporters grazing on mini crab cakes and canapes of herring, duck and lingonberries.

They gather around the court as Tiafoe, in bright yellow shirt and shoes, rips a forehand cross-court that barely skims the net.

"Ooh! Nice!" the spectators gush.

Later, in remarks over dinner, former world No. 1 Mats Wilander, 49, warns of the peril of expecting too much from tennis phenoms. When promising juniors don't blossom as pros, Wilander says, it's often the fault of outside forces - the agents, sponsors and parents who push too hard.

"If you leave him alone, let him grow into himself as a person and a player, he'll be fine. He'll reach his full potential," Wilander says, nodding at Tiafoe, who looks on with his brother and parents. "Francis should feel no pressure."

Then comes a video of Tiafoe, followed by a tribute from Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker III, a Democrat, who hails the teen as a role model for the county, next in a line of homegrown sporting stars such as boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and NBA star Kevin Durant.

The Tiafoes are introduced. Alphina is asked to stand, and her son follows suit. As guests applaud, whistle and cheer, the golden child of American tennis smiles and waves. He needs no parental reminder. He knows he has been blessed.

- Washington Post

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