Francis Tiafoe: America pins its hopes on a tennis prodigy

May 21, 2014
Charles Laurence

It used to be the Brits who were desperate to find a new tennis star – now it's the Americans


AMERICA is desperate to discover a young, male tennis ace to take on the world and revive its glory days of Grand Slam domination. Now the sporting press believes it may have found him, and the trumpets are blasting as the summer season gets under way.

Francis Tiafoe is just 16, too young to have his driving licence, let alone square off against Andy Murray at Wimbledon. But hopes are high that he may just be America’s answer to Britain's Murray, a player to bring an end to years and years of great national expectations dashed in early round defeats.

"Oh, those finicky American sports fans, always looking for The Next One," writes Phil Collin of the Daily Breeze. "Especially in tennis, where the Sampras-Agassi era gave way to some serious sighing on the world stage. So any sign of a fresh face is welcomed with open arms and a hopeful heart.

"At the USTA Training Center this week, the watchful eyes are out in force and they're catching a glimpse of — well, you guessed it, what may be the best new hope for United States tennis."

There is national pride at stake. Can it be a complete coincidence that when Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe ruled the roost America sat atop the global ranking, unsullied by misguided wars and venal greed? That Sampras and Agassi brought home the trophies at a time when America had won the Cold War?

New hope could not have risen at a better moment.

"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," writes Liz Clarke in the longest feature on the new star so far, just published in the Washington Post.

As Clarke recounts, last December Tiafoe [pronounced Tee-AH-foe] became the youngest player ever to win the Orange Bowl, the prestigious international title for 18-and-under boys. He was only 15, younger even than Federer, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg when they won it.  

The Junior French Open, starting on 1 June, and then Junior Wimbledon are set to be the test. At Roland Garros, he will be the top-seeded boy.

"In a country yearning for a home-grown 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," writes Clarke.

He had his first shave earlier this year, and is still growing at 6ft 1in. He has a twin brother, Franklin, who learned to swing a tennis racket before he did, but never took to the game.

The Tiafoe family story adds to the allure. Francis's parents, Constant and Alphina, both came to America from Sierra Leone, Alphina getting out just before the outbreak of the nation's civil war after winning an annual visa lottery, and Constant, with dreadlocks and a jagged grin, following a couple of years.

They met as members of a hardscrabble immigrant community in College Park, a low-income Maryland suburb of Washington, DC, which is also home to the Unversity of Maryland. Alphina was training to be nurse, and working night shifts as a nursing assistant, when she produced her twin boys.

Constant got a job on a construction crew building the new Junior Tennis Champions Centre and club. He was one of four black men in a workforce of Mexicans and, he explains, that made him work extra hard because he wanted to impress. He did. When the building was finished, he was offered the job of caretaker and maintenance man.

He took it. The job came with a storage room that Constant was allowed to turn into his on-site quarters. When his twins were one year old, he moved them in for five nights a week while his wife worked the nightshifts. They slept on a massage table. The twins basically grew up at the tennis club.

"The twins' tennis education started so long ago that neither has a first memory of holding a racket or taking a lesson," writes Clarke. "As toddlers they were pushed around in their stroller by club members who doted on them while their father worked. And when his boys were five, he got them enrolled, free of charge, in the clinic for the littlest children."

The family still struggles. Constant left the tennis club to start his own business, which failed, and now works at a car wash. Aphina works double shifts at a nursing home, and is still taking night classes to qualify as a registered nurse. They cannot afford to travel to their son's tournaments.

But the tennis club never stopped Tiafoe's coaching, which would cost $27,500 a year. 

Of course, tennis is littered with promising youngsters who peaked before they could reach the top tier, among them Patrick McEnroe, the younger brother of John, who is now the general manager of player development for the US Tennis Association.

He worries about the pressure that Francis Tiafoe will face this make-or-break summer.

"We're at a pretty big low in men's tennis at the top right now," he says. "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."

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