When Frances Tiafoe defeated Rafael Nadal to advance to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, he strutted around the court with his shirt over his face. Overcome with emotion, tears of improbable joy began to flow.
The 24-year-old touted as the future of American tennis became the present. Tiafoe had just defeated one of the greatest tennis players of all time. The breakthrough victory Tiafoe was desperately searching for finally arrived.
Tiafoe then advanced to the semifinal, becoming the first Black American in the U.S. Open semifinal since Arthur Ashe in 1972. Tiafoe’s run ended in the semifinal at the hands of Carlos Alcaraz in a five-set thriller on Friday night.
Following the loss, Tiafoe stood on the hard court and told the crowd and viewers at home he felt like he “let you guys down.”
Tiafoe didn’t let anyone down. From his early trainers at the Junior Tennis Champions Center to Maryland’s head football coach, his hometown of College Park is as proud as ever.
“I’m so happy for him and so proud of him” said Komi Oliver Akli, his first trainer and longtime friend who watched him grow up, literally, on the tennis courts at the JTCC.
“This place gave him everything. Everything,” Akli said.
In the early 1990s, Tiafoe’s parents emigrated from Sierra Leone — a West African nation embroiled in a bloody civil war – to College Park, Maryland, where Frances, and his twin brother, Franklin, were born in 1998.
Tiafoe’s parents came with nothing. His dad, Constant, got a job working as a construction worker on the site of what was to become a brand-new tennis center right down the street from the University of Maryland campus. When it was completed in 1999, JTCC kept the senior Tiafoe on staff as a custodian.
His wife, Alphina Kamara, worked as a nurse, which often required her to work through the night, leaving her twin babies with their father.
He worked long hours at JTCC, so he eventually converted a trainer’s room/office with two tables into a bedroom for the three to sleep in. The training tables doubled as beds with Frances sleeping on one with his brother, while his father slept on the other.
But just outside the less-than-ideal sleeping environment was the young Tiafoe’s escape: a tennis court, a racket and ball that have allowed him to soar to incredible heights.
Now, whenever he’s home, Tiafoe continues to train at JTCC, which has undergone massive renovations in the past two decades, expanding from some 10 tennis courts to over 35.
Akli, who currently serves as the senior director of player development at JTCC, first came on board at the facility in 2000, when Tiafoe was just 2 years old.
He developed a relationship with the senior Tiafoe and developed what he describes as his own “father-son like” relationship with the young boy.
“One thing I saw from him is he just loved to have fun,” Akli said of Tiafoe as a child. “He just wanted to enjoy himself on the court. He just wanted to let everybody know, like, ‘I’m here. Frances here.’ ”
Despite the difficult environment Tiafoe grew up in compared to other kids coming to the club, according to Akli, he always maintained a good attitude.
“He never gets upset,” Akli said. “He’s always smiling, always.”
The day after Tiafoe defeated Nadal, as Akli was showing me around the courts that the tennis star trains on at the JTCC, he got a Facetime call from Franklin Tiafoe.
“He did it,” Tiafoe’s twin brother said when Akli answered the phone.
“He did it, man,” Akli responded.
The conversation quickly turned from pride to preparation as they immediately started to discuss how Tiafoe would defeat his next opponent, Andrey Rublev.
Tiafoe handily defeated Rublev in straight sets to make history.
Tennis trainer Misha Kouznetsov remembers the day he met Tiafoe. It was October 23, 2006, his first day on board as a coach at JTCC. He didn’t have any kids to work with, so he was immediately paired with the young Tiafoe, who was just 8 years old at the time.
When Kouznetsov started working with him, he recalled, he didn’t notice much of a difference in his skill level compared to the other kids.
What eventually separated him from the other players was the five or six hours of work the young boy was putting in every day.
Kouznetsov said he paid many of Tiafoe’s tournament fees, drove him around to tournaments and often paid for his gear because his parents couldn’t afford it. Occasionally on weekends, Tiafoe stayed at Kouznetsov’s house. His coach traveled all over the country with the ascending star, watching him blossom into the best American tennis player.
Kouznetsov coached Tiafoe from the age of 8 to 17, before Tiafoe moved on shortly after he turned professional. It is common for the UTSA (United States Tennis Association) to step in when players turn pro and encourage them to hire more established coaches.
Tiafoe moved on to other coaches, and the two don’t have much of a relationship anymore, Kouznetsov said, but they do still exchange occasional texts on holidays and after big wins.
In a 2015 New York Times article, Tiafoe made clear what he owed to Kouznetsov. “I can’t thank him enough,” he said. “Without him, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now.”
“I’m proud of him,” Kouznetsov said in a phone interview hours before Tiafoe advanced to the semifinals. “It was our dream from the beginning. We always talked about how we wanted to be the next American to win it.”
For Tiafoe’s inner circle, the breakthrough win over Nadal was especially meaningful after having watched him come close to getting his signature win back in 2017. It was the same tournament, in the same stadium against another all-time great: Roger Federer. Tiafoe took a first set lead, and the match went to a fifth set, but Tiafoe faltered. Beating Nadal five years later was his moment. Tiafoe had arrived.
Tiafoe’s development at JTCC doesn’t stop just because he’s the most prominent alum to come out of the center. He still comes often to train there. About a week before Tiafoe left for the U.S. Open, he was at the JTCC working with Akli.
One of the aspects of his game they were working on was “looking at where you’re at on the court” and figuring out “what kind of shot do I have to hit to give myself another chance,” Akli said.
“He’s finally realizing, like you know what, ‘I can play this game, be a little bit more disciplined. Stay in the point longer.’ He’s finally getting it,” Akli said.
The night before the Nadal match, Akli said he delivered a message to Tiafoe over Facetime:
“These guys, they’re all getting old,” Akli said he told Tiafoe. “You’re stronger, faster, you’re training harder now.”
“You got to be physical with this guy,” Akli continued. “Keep the point longer, match longer and then at the end, their body is going to be out and then you bring your energy up because you are younger than them.”
The younger, hungrier Tiafoe prevailed.
When Tiafoe wins a big point or game in a match, he’ll often pump his right fist in the air. Among the various wristbands he sports every match, one stands out: the red wristband with multiple “M” letters, representing the University of Maryland.
Although Tiafoe didn’t attend the University of Maryland – he didn’t attend any college, and according to Akli, college was never even a consideration because he turned pro before it was a thought – JTCC is just a seven-minute drive from Maryland Stadium on campus. Tiafoe has developed a relationship with Maryland football head coach Mike Locksley and the entire football program.
When Locksley got the Maryland head coaching position in 2018, Tiafoe reached out through mutual friends and spends a lot of time at Maryland’s facilities when he’s in town. Locksley calls himself a mentor to Tiafoe.
Tiafoe takes full advantage of the many resources Maryland has to offer, almost as if he is an alum of the school. The Terps’ trainers work on Tiafoe when he visits, so on Monday, when Tiafoe was on the brink of defeating Nadal, the trainers were glued to their phones.
“I said, ‘Listen, we got guys practicing,’ ” Locksley joked. “They take good care of Frances when he’s here in town and he’s been a great supporter of Maryland football.”
“He’s one of those guys, like myself, who loves everything DMV, and so it’s good to have guys like him around,” Locksley continued.
Locksley sees a parallel between the path of Tiafoe’s career and the road Maryland football finds itself on.
“He was looking for an opportunity to have a breakthrough win,” Locksley said. “I see us on that some trajectory. We’re a team that’s kind of grinding in the dark that will continue to push through and hopefully get one of these breakthrough wins like he had.”
Tiafoe certainly got his, time will only tell if Maryland gets one as well.
While Tiafoe picked up a breakthrough win on his U.S. Open run, a major title still eludes him. But he assured the crowd on Friday night that he “will win this thing one day.”
The people in College Park believe him and will be behind him when that day comes.