- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2022

In 2022, Frances Tiafoe — “Big Foe” as he’s known to tennis fans and on social media — really has been on the “come-up.” And this week, the come-up comes home.

The Hyattsville native is back at the Citi Open, getting a week to catch up with family and friends during a tournament he says he has circled on his ATP Tour calendar every year.

“Super excited to be back here,” Tiafoe told reporters ahead of the start of his singles play later this week. “I’ve been in some good rhythm getting to this event, so I’m super excited to play at home.”

Tiafoe looked relaxed going into a tournament where he’ll play singles as the No. 10 seed and doubles with Atlanta Open singles champion Alex de Minaur of Australia. He did admit, though, that “‘Do Not Disturb’ is definitely in play” on his phone as being home brings more demands to use his time.

“It’s good and bad,” Tiafoe said. “Obviously everyone roots for you, but everyone is wanting your time.”

“Everyone wants me to do so well,” he continued. “I know everyone from [Citi Open] credential people to media people, everyone. I just want to put on a show and go deep. This year I’m really looking forward to it.

Tiafoe comes into the Citi Open on a hot streak, winning five of his last seven matches and reaching a career-best fourth round at Wimbledon and the semifinals of last week’s Atlanta Open. He’s looking to add to his lone career ATP singles title, the 2018 Delray Beach Open.

I’m serving much better,” Tiafoe said of his recent play. “I’m in a better place mentally. I’m finally getting rhythm again.”

His run in Atlanta bumped him up to No. 27 in the ATP rankings, two spots shy of his career high of 25th from earlier this year. The next step to become a mainstay near the top of the rankings, Tiafoe said, is to find consistency in his play week-in and week-out.

“[In] tournaments like these, I want to be on Sunday holding the trophy. Grand Slams, make second weeks. Make it a more normality,” Tiafoe said.  

“I’ve got big aspirations. But I think my game is there. I think I’m there physically. I’m just day by day with it.”

His story is well known to greater D.C. sports fans, and one of the more compelling ones in tennis considering the prestige and dominance of high-cost academies in the sport.

His father, who immigrated to Maryland in the 1990s to escape war-torn Sierra Leone, worked his way from helping to build College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center to becoming its head of maintenance. Along the way, Tiafoe and his twin brother, Franklin, spent countless hours at the center learning, training, and growing up with the game in one of the most unique ways of any professional athlete.

His ATP Tour debut came at (where else?) this tournament in 2014. Eight years later, things could be in the right alignment for Tiafoe to hoist a trophy in his backyard.

“I like the conditions here,” Tiafoe said of the Fitzgerald Tennis Center’s hard courts. “I practice on this court a lot, on center court here a lot. The crowd is going to be with me. I’m going to get them behind me. It’s going to be a good week.”

In early first-round action on the women’s side of the draw Monday, top seed Jessica Pegula rolled to a straight-set victory over D.C. native Hailey Baptiste, 6-2, 6-2. Pegula admitted to being nervous playing “local favorite” Baptiste, but was able to break Baptiste after a deuce at 2-2 in the second set that paved the way to a win.

No. 3 seed Simona Halep defeated qualifier Cristina Busca of Spain, 6-3, 7-5. The Romanian and two-time Grand Slam champion was cruising to victory — up 5-2 in the deciding set — before rallying to hold on. Halep admitted post-match that her “energy dropped” due to the near-90-degree heat during the afternoon session.

In the men’s draw, Arlington-native Denis Kudla came back after dropping the first set to fellow American Michael Mmoh, winning 1-6, 6-3, 6-4. He’ll meet another American, fourth seed Reilly Opelka, in the next round.

• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

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