When Francis Tiafoe defeated Rafael Nadal to advance to the US Open quarter-finals, he was walking around the court with his jersey to his face. Passion overcame, and tears of unlikely joy began to flow.
The 24-year-old touted the future of American tennis as present. Tiafoe had just defeated one of the greatest tennis players of all time. The victory that Tiafoe had been desperately searching for finally arrived.
Tiafoe then advanced to the semi-finals, becoming the first black American in a US Open semi-final since Arthur Ashe in 1972. Tiafoe’s semi-final run was ended by Carlos Alcaraz in a thrilling five-set match on Friday night.
After the loss, Tiafoe stood on the hard court and told the crowd and spectators at home that he felt like “letting you guys down”.
Tiafoe never let anyone down. From his top coaches at the Junior Tennis Champions Center to the head football coach in Maryland, his hometown of College Park is as proud as ever.
“I am so happy for him and so proud of him,” said Komi Oliver Ackley, his first coach and longtime friend who watched him grow up, literally, on the tennis courts at JTCC.
“This place gave him everything. Ackley said.
In the early 1990s, Tiafoe’s parents immigrated from Sierra Leone – the West African country embroiled in a bloody civil war – to College Park, Maryland, where Francis and his twin brother Franklin were born in 1998.
Tiafo’s parents did nothing. His father, Constant, got a job as a construction worker on a site that was to become an entirely new tennis center down the street from the University of Maryland campus. When it was completed in 1999, the JTCC kept the senior Tiafoe on staff as trustee.
His wife, Alvina Camara, worked as a nurse, often requiring her to work all night, leaving her two twin children with their father.
He worked long hours at JTCC, so he eventually converted the coach’s room/office with two tables into a bedroom where all three slept. else.
But outside of an imperfect sleeping environment, Tiafoe’s little escape was: a tennis court, racket and ball that allowed him to soar to incredible heights.
Now, when he’s at home, Tiafoe continues training at JTCC, which has undergone massive renovations in the past two decades, expanding from around 10 tennis courts to more than 35.
Akli, who is currently the Senior Director of Player Development at JTCC, first joined the facility in 2000, when Tiafoe was just two years old.
He developed a relationship with the elder Tiafoe and developed what he describes as a “father and son” relationship with the young boy.
“One of the things I saw from him was that he just liked to have fun,” Ackley said of Tiafo as a child. “He just wanted to have fun on the court. He just wanted to tell everyone, like, ‘I’m here.'” Francis here. “
Despite the difficult environment in which Tiafoe grew up compared to other children coming to the club, according to Ackley, he always maintained a good attitude.
He never gets angry, Ackley said. “He’s always smiling, always.”
The day after Tiafoe’s defeat to Nadal, while Ackley was showing me on the courts the JTCC tennis star was training, he got a FaceTime call from Franklin Tiafoe.
“He did it,” said Tiafoe’s twin brother when Ackley answered the phone.
“He did it, man,” replied Ackley.
The conversation quickly turned from pride to readiness as they immediately began discussing how Tiafoe would defeat his next opponent, Andrei Rublev.
Tiafoe easily defeated Rublev in straight sets to make history.
Tennis coach Misha Kuznetsov remembers the day he met Tiafoe. It was October 23, 2006, his first day on board as a JTCC coach. He didn’t have any children to work with, so he was immediately paired with young Tiafoe, who was only 8 years old at the time.
Kuznetsov recalls that when he started working with him, he did not notice much difference in his skill level compared to other children.
What ultimately separated him from the other guys was the five or six hours of work the little boy was putting in every day.
Kouznetsov said he paid a lot of Tiafoe’s course fees, drove him to tournaments and often paid for his equipment because his parents couldn’t afford it. Occasionally on weekends, Tiafoe stayed at Kouznetsov’s house. His coach traveled across the country with the rising star, and watched him thrive into becoming the top American tennis player.
Kuznetsov coached Tiafo from ages 8 to 17, before moving on to Tiafoe shortly after turning professional. It is common for the UTSA (Tennis Association of America) to step in when players turn pro and encourage them to hire more experienced coaches.
Kuznetsov said Tiafo has moved on to other coaches, and they don’t have a big relationship anymore, but they still text occasionally on holidays and after big wins.
in 2015 The New York Times An article, Tiafoe explained what he owes to Kuznetsov. “I can’t thank him enough,” he said. “Without him, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now.”
“I’m proud of him,” Kuznetsov said in a phone interview hours before Tiafoe qualified for the semi-finals. “It was our dream from the start. We always talked about how we wanted to be the next Americans to win it.”
For Tiafoe’s close circle, the impressive victory over Nadal was especially meaningful after watching him come close to reclaiming his signature again in 2017. It was the same tournament, on the same court, against another all-time great player: Roger Federer. Tiafoe took the first set, and the match went to the fifth set, but Tiafoe faltered. His victory over Nadal five years later was his moment. Tiafoe has arrived.
Tiafoe’s development doesn’t stop at JTCC just because it’s the most prominent alum out of the center. He still often comes for training there. About a week before Tiafoe left the US Open, he was at JTCC working with Akli.
Ackley said that one aspect of his game they were working on was to “look at where you are on the court” and decide “what kind of shot I have to take to give myself another chance”.
“He finally realized, you know, ‘I can play this game, and be a little more disciplined. Stay on point longer. “He finally got it,” Ackley said.
The night before Nadal’s match, Ackley said he delivered a message to Tiafoe via FaceTime:
“These guys, they’re all getting old,” Akli told Tiafoe. “You’re stronger, faster, you’re training harder now.”
My mind continued, “You have to be physical with this guy.” “Keep the point longer, match for longer, and then eventually, their body will come out and then you power up because you’re younger than them.”
Tiafoe was younger and hungry.
When Tiafoe wins a big point or match in a match, he often pumps his right fist up in the air. Among the different bracelets that he wears in each match, one stands out: the red wrist bracelet with several “M” letters, representing the University of Maryland.
Although Tiafoe did not attend the University of Maryland—he never attended college, and according to Ackley, never college a consideration because he became a professional before you thought of it—JTCC is only a seven-minute drive from Maryland’s on-campus stadium. Tiafoe developed a relationship with Maryland football coach Mike Locksley and the entire football program.
When Locksley took the head coaching position in Maryland in 2018, Tiafoe communicated through mutual friends and spends a lot of time at Maryland facilities when in town. Locksley calls himself a mentor to Tiafoe.
Tiafoe takes full advantage of the many resources Maryland has to offer, as if he were a graduate of the school. Terps coaches work on Tiafoe when he visits, so on Monday, when Tiafoe was about to defeat Nadal, the coaches were glued to their phones.
“I said, ‘Listen, we’ve got guys training,’” Loxley joked. “They take good care of Francis when he’s here in town and he’s been a huge supporter of football in Maryland.”
“He’s one of those guys who, like me, loves everything from DMV, so it’s good to have guys like him around,” Loxley continued.
Locksley sees the trajectory of Tiafoe’s career and the way football in Maryland finds itself.
“He was looking for an opportunity to get a big win,” Locksley said. “Show us on that path. We are the kind of team that grinds in the dark that will keep going and hopefully get one of those amazing wins as it happened.”
Tiafoe sure got it, and time will only tell if Maryland gets one, too.
While Tiafoe racked up an impressive career win at the US Open, a major title is still far from him. But he assured the audience on Friday night that he would “win this thing one day.”
The people in College Park believe him and will be behind him when that day comes.