Tiafoe’s US Open run delights Prince George fans old and new – The Washington Post

Tiafoe's US Open run delights Prince George fans old and new - The Washington Post

Michael Glass Jr. had no idea that Frances Tiafoe, the swaggering 24-year-old tennis player belting forehands across the bar’s TV screen, was from Hyattsville, just like he was. He was finishing work at a Riverdale bar Wednesday afternoon when a man walked in and asked the bartender to turn to the US Open. Someone local played.

A Georgian prince? In the quarter finals?

“We have to put that on,” Glass said, and he watched, hooked, as the Marylander closed in on someone. a historic victory — for Tiafoe, and for the county he represented on the biggest stage of American tennis.

Glass clicked a list of famous Prince George athletes. Kevin Durant. Michael Beasley. Now, they have another — this time in tennis — after Tiafoe defeated Russian Andrey Rublev, 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-0), 6-4, to advance to Friday’s semifinals.

“He exemplifies the standard of what Prince George’s County is,” Glass said.

Tiafoe already has his fans in the county where he was born and raised. In College Park, dozens of players gathered at the Center of Junior Tennis Champions (JTTC) to watch the tennis academy’s most famous alumnus.

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The JTCC was a second home for Tiafoe, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone who as a 5-year-old boy obtained a free place in the initial tennis clinics of the JTCC through the work of his father as the caretaker of the center. He played every day, running to the court next door to imitate older players after his age group lessons ended, and told his dad by the age of 6 that he wanted to be the best player to leave the club.

“There was so much desire and drive and hunger,” said Misha Kouznetsov, Tiafoe’s former coach.

In December 2013, Tiafoe became the youngest player at 15 to win the Orange Bowl, the most prestigious international title for boys 18 and under. A long climb up the ranks of professional tennis followed. Now, copies of the tennis star’s awards and newspaper articles line the JTCC clubhouse walls, and the center stocks Tiafoe bubble heads.

But Tiafoe, who as a professional player continues to use the JTCC as a base camp for training between tournaments, does not carry the self-importance of its ever-higher station. The athletes who train there say he feels like an older brother to them.

“He’s always joking,” said Ameera Malik, 18, of College Park. “You never see Frances mad, never. Most of the time, I’m the one who gets upset about bad practice or whatever, and he’ll come and joke with me.”

“He was really into the community,” said Cyrus Mahjoob, 16, of Rockville, who first met Tiafoe when he joined a game with Mahjoob’s youth class. Since then, they have been training together and massing at full speed.

“I knew I wasn’t going to hit too many winners against him,” Mahjoob said, laughing.

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Tiafoe has come close – awfully close – to a breakout moment at the US Open in years past. In 2017, he lost to Roger Federer in five sets in a titanic first-round clash. Twice before, he made the fourth round. He first signaled that this year could be different on Monday, when he upset second seed Rafael Nadal to reach Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

“My mom, she called me crying,” Malik said. “And I teared up too because it’s like, Frances, man.”

Kouznetsov, who now coaches private tennis lessons in DC, was on the freeway when he spotted his former student’s score on his phone. He took the next exit and ran into Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the end of the match.

“I was like, look, I have to see this in person,” he said.

No one doubted that Tiafoe could go far in the tournament. And he just eliminated one of the sport’s toughest competitors. So Malik and Mahjoob were optimistic as they were huddled with his peers Wednesday afternoon at one end of the cavernous tent that houses the JTCC’s indoor courts, where folding chairs were arranged on the gray clay around an inflatable screen playing the match.

Tiafoe, seeded 22nd, continued to have a tough task against ninth-seeded Rublev. The crowd at the tennis center mirrored the partisan atmosphere in New York, gasping when a Rublev lob landed by inches and screaming when Tiafoe ventured to the net to end points with a deft volley – the same as those they were on the receiving end of. of so many times in practice. Slowly, a confident Tiafoe gained a lead. A staff member told the younger kids up front to stand up and cheer so ESPN could spray a reaction. When a Tiafoe return flew past Rublev to seal the second set, they jumped to their feet.

Watching quietly from the back was Komi Oliver Akli, the JTCC’s senior director of player development who coaches Tiafoe when he trains at the JTCC. He pointed excitedly to signs of Tiafoe’s progress. Akli had worked with Tiafoe in College Park just two days before the US Open, trying to improve his back hand – “There, do you see?” he said, like Tiafoe laced one down the line to score a point.

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Akli, a star athlete from Togo who moved to the United States to coach tennis, met Tiafoe when he was a child and felt a connection with his Sierra Leonean family from the start. Tiafoe’s success is something of a thesis statement for the JTCC, which along with its paid tennis academy offers scholarships and runs several community outreach programs for majority-black and Hispanic cohorts in schools and community centers across Prince George’s County and Prince George’s — a rare investment in an industry that traditionally caters only to the wealthy families who can afford advanced tennis training.

In the schools and centers that the JTCC serves, not all the children have heard of Tiafoe, Akli says. He thinks his name will grow after his run at the US Open this year, and inspire more youth from Prince George.

“Most of them say, ‘Oh, we just heard his name,’ but they don’t know exactly who he is, what he’s done for the community,” Akli said. “This is going to get bigger and bigger.”

As Tiafoe inched closer to victory, the patrons watching the game at the Riverdale bar grew more anxious. At a table across from Vitro’s bar, Joe Clair and Denise Mitchell fidgeted in their seats. Between laughs, Clair joked – “The mortgage is riding on this!”

Cheers erupted as Tiafoe finally clinched the match with a blazing ace. Glass looked behind him and shared a laugh with Clair and Mitchell, strangers who all agreed: The county needed this win.

“It’s heartwarming, and we can brag now,” said Mitchell, a College Park city councilwoman. “He comes from College Park.”

“Especially coming in the week where the youth of Prince George’s County were placed under curfew,” Clair said. (District Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks announced On Monday, Prince George’s would enforce a month-long curfew on youth under 17 after an increase in gun violence.) “To have a young man from Prince George’s County in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open? This is amazing. This is exactly what we need.”

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After the match ended, JTCC staff quickly put away the folding chairs and wheeled carts of tennis balls back onto the courts. Within minutes, the echoes and thumps of tennis strokes filled the tent, and Akli went back to work. But he couldn’t stop gushing about his best student.

“It makes me feel like we did something here,” Akli said. “This is big for JTCC, this is big for the county, it’s huge for the entire nation.”

He would text Tiafoe his congratulations after class, he said, but there were no plans to toast the victory yet. In a wide-open men’s draw, Akli thinks Tiafoe can win it all. He will be back to watch on Friday when Tiafoe takes on Spain’s third-ranked Carlos Alcaraz.

“We have to finish it,” Akli said. “And then we can celebrate.”

an explanation

An earlier version of this article described Akli as Tiafoe’s current coach. He trains Tiafoe when he trains at the JTCC. The article has been updated.

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