COLLEGE PARK, Md. — On the shelf in Ray Benton’s office at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., are four Frances Tiafoe bobbleheads, each with a different color jersey and “Trust Your Coaching” emblazoned on them. Benton, a longtime tennis executive and executive director of the JTCC, makes sure kids get one every time they advance to a level in the center’s junior program.
The 24-year-old Tiafoe’s influence can be seen and felt throughout the sprawling complex. His father, Constant, who fled war-torn Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, was on the construction crew that built it. It’s also where Francis and his twin brother, Franklin, slept on the massage table as young boys in what was then a glorified janitor’s closet that doubled as a home for the hardworking father and his children while their mother, Alvina Kamara, who emigrated from Sierra Leone a few years after Constant, worked nights. as a nurse.
But even though many professionals choose the warmer climate of Florida or California, Tiafoe still calls the capital home and trains at JTCC, spending about 10 weeks a year there. He’s comfortable in his surroundings and that also allows him to provide the kind of inspiration that Serena and Venus Williams have given him from afar, especially in a sport that’s still very much white and for the privileged. Tiafoe’s big personality extends beyond color barriers, though — whether it’s with Michigan’s sixth-ranked Andrew Fenty in college tennis, Virginia’s up-and-comer Stefan Regalia and Cyrus Mahgob’s Michigan-bound, or helping motivate the next generation. , the effect is remarkable.
“He’s more of a top 20 player in the world for us, he’s a friend and someone we look up to,” says Regalia.
Adds 9-year-old Caroline McClain, who has progressed through the center’s training program for the past two years.
Winning facilitates inspiration, and Tiafoe did his share of that last season, climbing inside the world’s top 20 for the first time after reaching at least the quarter-finals in eight tournaments, including during a magical two-week run at the US Open. , where he beat Rafael Nadal and Andrey Rublev before falling in an epic five-set semi-final to eventual champion and current world number one Carlos Alcaraz. In doing so, he became the first American player to reach the quarter-finals in New York since John Isner in 2018 and the youngest player to do so since Andy Roddick in 2006. Roddick is also the last American men’s player to win a Grand Slam title. , which he did that year in Queens. Tiafoe doesn’t want that memorable run of Arthur Ashe to be at its peak. He wants more, and he’ll try to end the American men’s drought again starting this week at the Australian Open.
“I’ve made some good wins [last year] But didn’t really support them, I didn’t really go to the next level of being in semi-finals and finals [of Grand Slams],” Tiafoe told the newspaper. “I beat a lot of good players [but] Winning consistently gives you that confidence.”
It only took him a little while to get here.
“Francis was a happy kid who always loved being around the tennis court,” Benton told The Post. “I met him when he was about 5 years old. He lived to play tennis, and he smiled when he played.”
But in the early part of his career, Tiafoe was admittedly very happy. The story goes like this: After he finished the year in the world’s top 100 for the first time in 2017 – a season that included pushing Roger Federer to five sets in the opening round of the US Open – he noticed how happy he was with his play. Someone then asked Tiafoe what the hardest workers on the tour were, and he proceeded to name Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
The message finally got through. According to some around Tiafoe, he was used to being treated like a star without performing like such a star.
In 2020, Tiafoe hired Wayne Ferreira as his coach. The gritty, hard-nailed South African, who won 15 titles in a career that saw him reach No. 6 in the world, was exactly what Tiafoe needed.
“I think I helped him because I played and went through the troubles of being relatively talented and being lazy, and then finding the right team, and the people behind me pushing me to do the right thing day in and day out with food, exercise, and exercise,” Ferreira told USOpen.org last September. He really has to change it.”
Those same people around Tiafoe say they’ve noticed the changes, as the one-time winner has gone from joking or looking at his phone during rehearsals to taking it more seriously. He is also visibly more agile, has developed a bigger serve, improved his positioning on the court and learned how to stay on the points longer.
“[Ferreira’s] The effect was more on the mental side than anything else; To be locked in, to pay attention to detail, to be more professional and to make me believe in myself,” Tiafoe told The Post, adding that he still needed to be more consistent with his first serve, which was the reason for his big downfall in the loss to Alcaraz.
The spoils of his recent success have also led him to meet everyone from LeBron James to Michelle Obama. Tiafoe counts among his friends Kevin Durant and Michael Paisley, both of whom grew up in the D.C. area.
He also says that the Williams sisters are an integral part of him, and Serena in particular.
“The level of respect I have for her is enormous,” Tiafoe said. “She’s always so proud of me and tells me to keep going, do the work, and keep a little crowd [of supporters]. “
Two weeks after Serena “evolved” away from tennis at the US Open, Tiafoe was on hand to bid farewell to another legend – he and Jack Sock defeated Nadal and Federer in the Laver Cup in the final match of Federer’s career. Federer, crying his eyes out afterwards, will go down as one of the most indelible images in tennis history, the legend whose career was marked by poise and never seemed to suddenly sweat and lose control. Tiafoe felt a little differently that night, saying the victory left him “empty” inside.
But Federer’s retirement also leaves him worrying less about it this week at the Australian Open, which will also be without Alcaraz, who is struggling with a hamstring injury. There are still others, including Djokovic, who has won the last three Australian matches he has played. But Tiafoe says he is hungrier than in the past and that winning Grand Slams is the goal.
Tiafoe also told The Post that he doesn’t want to be known as just a great tennis player, he wants to be known as someone who gives back to his community and stands up for something bigger than himself.
“But this is all about winning,” he said. “The more you earn, the more visibility you have and the more opportunities you have to help others.”
He’s on his way.