IntroducingFrancis Tiafoe, Pr. George’s Tennis Phenom
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….while living here in the DMV.
He made his debut at the Junior French Open on Sunday as the No. 1 seed — the competitor whom 63 rivals most wanted to beat, the youngster whom the media wanted to interview and the American deemed most likely to reclaim the country’s once proud tennis history. Despite an impressive first round victory and taking a one-set, 2-1 lead in his second round match, the suburban Washington native lost in the second round to a 17 year old Russian in the Junior French Open
Back in December, the Prince George’s County-born teen became the youngest player to win the Orange Bowl, the most prestigious international title for 18-and-under boys, achieving the feat at 15 — more quickly than even Federer, John McEnroe or Bjorn Borg managed. And when the French Open juniors tournament gets under way in Paris on June 1, Tiafoe (pronounced Tee-AH-foe) 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 center benefactors have invested in his young career.
In many ways, this broad-shouldered, 6-foot-1-inch phenom with eight-pack abs is still a boy. Tiafoe doesn’t yet drive, has a 9 p.m. bedtime and shaved for the first time in January. But he possesses a missile of a forehand, a full complement of shots and tactical savvy beyond his years.
He calls fellow Prince George’s County native Kevin Durant his role model and said the NBA star’s MVP speech made him cry. “I think Kevin Durant being that humble is huge,” said Tiafoe.
A family struggles
Clockwise from top, the Tiafoe family — Francis Sr., Alphina, Franklin and Francis.
His parents — who met in Maryland almost two decades ago and married last year — saw none of this. They have led a precarious financial existence since arriving in the United States.
Alphina Tiafoe, 46, works double shifts on weekends at a Bethesda nursing home and goes to school three days a week with the goal of becoming a registered nurse. Tiafoe Sr., who left the tennis center after 11 years in an unsuccessful attempt to launch his own business, works at a Hyattsville car wash detailing cars. He does his best to augment his base pay with tips.
He and Alphina have sometimes had trouble paying the rent on their apartment in Riverdale. They own one car, a Toyota Camry, that Alphina drives to work. Her husband commutes to the car wash on a used bike.
The couple can’t afford to travel to tournaments to see their son play. Asking the tennis center for help is out of the question, Tiafoe Sr. says, given the roughly $400,000 that has been invested in his son’s coaching, gear and tournament travel over the years.
For Alphina, a deeply religious woman who concedes she knows little about tennis, it is enough to see Francis bring home trophies — not because of the titles they represent but because they make him so happy. But for her tennis-loving husband, it can be frustrating to miss matches or watch them online instead of in person.
“When your kid is top in the nation, top in the world, maybe, and you don’t have the opportunity to sit there, it’s tough,” Tiafoe Sr. says. “But I let that go, because there is time for everything. I have to be grateful because if it’s not for this tennis center, we are not having this conversation.”
Reaching his full potential
The night before Tiafoe leaves for Europe to start preparing for the French Open, the 16-year-old steps onto a tennis court at the Swedish ambassador’s residence on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest D.C. He is a featured guest at the Junior Tennis Champions Center’s annual gala, invited to stage an exhibition for the 330 guests, who include former congressmen, business titans and well-heeled tennis supporters grazing on mini crab cakes and canapes of herring, duck and lingonberries.
Then comes a video of Tiafoe, followed by a tribute from Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who hails the teen as a role model for the county, next in a line of homegrown sporting stars such as boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and NBA star Kevin Durant.
The Tiafoes are introduced. Alphina is asked to stand, and her son follows suit. As guests applaud, whistle and cheer, the golden child of American tennis smiles and waves. He needs no parental reminder. He knows he has been blessed.