- - Sunday, July 27, 2014

There is no road map for the journey Francis Tiafoe is about to embark on; no direct route or shortcut to his ultimate destination.

But as the 16-year-old with dreams of becoming No.1 in the world prepares for the next milestone in his colossal quest, he does so in familiar surroundings.

Tiafoe will make his ATP main draw debut Monday at D.C.’s Citi Open from the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park, seven miles from his home in Riverdale Park, Maryland.

“This is a huge event for me,” says Tiafoe, ranked No.6 among juniors by the International Tennis Federation. “It’s the tournament that probably means the most to me. It’s not every day that you can play in the main draw of an ATP 500 event at 16-years-old, so I hope to really take advantage.”

Tiafoe received a wild card to the main draw and will face 24-year-old Russian Evgeny Donskoy — ranked No. 111 on the ATP World Tour — Monday night on stadium court. Tiafoe’s first foray into an ATP main draw shouldn’t be confused for a charitable gesture from his hometown tournament, but an earned reward more than a decade in the making.

“We were very emotional,” says Misha Kuznetsov, who has coached Tiafoe since the junior was 8 and still remembers taking him to his first tournament, Washington’s 12-and-under Mall Open, when he was 9. “This is more than tennis. This is his life. It’s such a sense of accomplishment to see how far he’s come.”

Tiafoe was 3 when he first picked up the game at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, a complex that his father, Francis Sr., helped build through manual labor in the late 1990s.

Once construction of the nonprofit tennis academy was complete, the JTCC hired Francis Sr. as a maintenance worker. The émigré from Sierra Leone held the job for more than a decade, often sleeping in his 140-square-foot office along with his twin sons Francis and Franklin. Outside the office was a glorious 32-court facility that served as the boys’ childhood playground.

“If my dad was never here,” Tiafoe said last week from the JTCC, “I probably would never have cared about tennis. Without my dad doing what he did, and without me putting in the hours, there wouldn’t be any travelling the world or playing with the pros. He’s a huge part of it.”

While Franklin developed other interests, Francis “was like a fly,” according to Vesa Ponkka, the JTCC’s director of tennis, “always there, all the time.”
As a 6-year-old, Tiafoe would roam the grounds, racket in hand, eyes and ears wide open. At times he would find a bench- feet dangling, legs too short to touch the ground as Ponkka recalls- and watch and listen as the academy’s top juniors received instruction. Within minutes, he was on a nearby court himself or hitting against a wall, trying to do the same.

“He actually came up like how everyone else did in the good old days,” Ponkka says, “by hitting against the wall and by listening and looking at the older players and studying what they did. That was so telling when he was young. That’s why his tennis IQ is so strong. We didn’t teach that.”

Ultimately the JTCC would provide plenty of instruction for Tiafoe, as he has worked his way through the junior ranks. As one of 50 players in the JTCC’s ‘champions program,’ a typical day for Tiafoe includes four hours of tennis, an hour of fitness, and thee-and-a-half hours of academics.

The estimated retail value of the services Tiafoe receives annually is “somewhere between $75,000-$100,000,”according to Ray Benton, the JTCC’s CEO. The USTA helps with his travel expenses and a New York City hedge fund manager was recently recruited as a sponsor. The investments are already proving worthwhile.

Tiafoe has been ranked as high as No.2 among junior players by the ITF and was the top seed at the Junior French Open in May. Among the highlights in Paris were three straight days hitting with world No.1 Rafael Nadal as he marched on to his record ninth career title at Roland Garros.

“I held my ground,” Tiafoe says flashing his gap-toothed smile. “After the first time, we walked off the court and when I sat down in the locker, it sort of hit me. It was cool to see how he carries himself. So intense, very professional.”

As a 15-year-old last December, Tiafoe became the youngest boys’ champion at the 18-and-under Orange Bowl- a tournament that counts Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Roger Federer among its past winners.

“I’m not satisfied,” Tiafoe says of a resume that has many projecting him as the next great U.S. champion. “My goal isn’t to be a top junior. It’s to be a top pro.”

Tiafoe says that he hopes to someday with the U.S. Open on Arthur Ashe Stadium — something that no American male has done since Andy Roddick in 2003.

Both of Tiafoe’s coaches — Kuznetsov and Frank Salazar — admit that there is much work to be done and that the transition from elite junior to entry level pro can be humbling.

“He’s going to have to have a stomach to take losses,” Salazar cautions. “At the start, he’s going to lose a lot more than he’s going to win.”

There is also reason to believe that the 6‘1” Tiafoe has the physical traits, the appropriate skillset and a strong mental game, which could all translate well at the next level.

“[Former world No.1] Mats Wilander once said to me that to be a champion ‘you have to be a freak. You need freaky athletic ability and you need freaky desire’” Benton recently recalled.

“There is no doubt Francis has both.”

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