Ti­afoe’s ten­nis star stays on rise

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FROM PAGE ONE -

bi­ceps slap and “Si­lencer” celebrations paid homage to NBA su­per­star Le­Bron James, who rec­og­nized Ti­afoe’s moves on so­cial me­dia.

Ti­afoe’s In­sta­gram ac­count gained about 30,000 new fol­low­ers af­ter his run in the Aus­tralian Open, and he drew about 8,000 new fol­low­ers on Twit­ter.

In early Jan­uary, he shared the court with two of the sport’s all-time greats, part­ner­ing with 23-time ma­jor cham­pion Ser­ena Wil­liams against Belinda Ben­cic and 20-time Grand Slam cham­pion Roger Fed­erer in a mixed dou­bles match at the Hop­man Cup in Aus­tralia.

“You’re talk­ing about, I can’t even talk how many Grand Slam [ti­tles] on that court,” Ti­afoe told USA To­day af­ter the match. “Forty-three [sin­gles], yeah. Like, I mean, that may not ever hap­pen again.

“The crowd was lov­ing it from the first point. I’ve never felt some­thing like that in a ten­nis match.”

On Feb. 2, he was the guest of honor at a Mil­wau­kee Bucks-Wash­ing­ton Wiz­ards game at Cap­i­tal One Arena, where his ac­com­plish­ments were shown on gi­ant video screens above the court and he met Bucks three-time All-Star for­ward Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo.

But to hear Ti­afoe re­flect on his jour­ney, this stage is wholly un­ex­pected.

“I’m not sup­posed to be here,” he said. “I’m not sup­posed to be do­ing any of these things.”

Ti­afoe’s par­ents, Frances Sr. and Al­phina Ka­mara, es­caped a civil war en­gulf­ing Sierra Leone and set­tled in nearby Hy­attsville in Prince Ge­orge’s County. His mother worked as a nurse, and his fa­ther se­cured a job as a cus­to­dian at the Ju­nior Ten­nis Cham­pi­ons Cen­ter in Col­lege Park.

In ex­change for work­ing around the clock at keep­ing the fa­cil­ity clean dur­ing the day and man­ag­ing the clay courts at night, Frances Sr. moved into a va­cant room at the com­plex. Frances Jr. and Franklin joined their fa­ther, sleep­ing there and pur­su­ing ten­nis.

Vesa Ponkka, the se­nior di­rec­tor of ten­nis at the JTCC, said he has known the twins since they were 5 years old. Frances Jr.’s hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion was spe­cial, but there was an as­pect of his per­son­al­ity that res­onated deeply with Ponkka.

“We have talked a lot about how he just loved the game,” Ponkka said. “He couldn’t get enough. That was the big­gest thing. He would sit at court­side and just watch all of the other great play­ers play­ing, and he could get never enough. Then he would go against the wall and hit for hours and hours, days af­ter days try­ing to mimic those play­ers. We could re­ally see right away that this kid just loved the game more than any­thing else. … He was around ten­nis so much that he didn’t have a choice other than to get good. It was very clear to see that ten­nis was ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing to him.”

Ti­afoe said that think­ing about his par­ents’ sac­ri­fice for him and his brother gets him teary-eyed.

“I’m just thank­ful for my dad for hav­ing the per­spec­tive about get­ting us [here],” he said. “Now be­ing able to do this and be­ing able to do things for my fam­ily and for my­self, it’s in­spired peo­ple, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about in­spir­ing oth­ers. It’s only crazy un­til you do it.”

A year ago, Ti­afoe won his first ATP ti­tle at the Del­ray Beach Open, but his best fin­ish in a ma­jor was a third-round ap­pear­ance at Wim­ble­don last sum­mer. That changed in Mel­bourne as he knocked out No. 5 seed Kevin An­der­son in four sets in the sec­ond round, ral­lied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to over­take An­dreas Seppi in the third round, and up­set No. 20 seed Grigor Dim­itrov in the fourth round be­fore fall­ing in straight sets to No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal.

Ti­afoe, who cel­e­brated his 21st birth­day the day af­ter up­end­ing Dim­itrov, said his suc­cess at the Aus­tralian Open re­mains at times be­wil­der­ing.

“I’m still watch­ing the videos, and it’s un­be­liev­able,” he said. “I left ev­ery­thing out there. So it was fun. I had a great time.”

While Franklin, who watched his brother’s matches in Or­lando, Fla., said he “wanted to jump through the TV,” Al­phina Ka­mara had a court­side seat to wit­ness her son’s achieve­ment.

“I think that with God, all things are pos­si­ble,” she said. “Be­cause he loved the game and worked so hard, ev­ery­thing comes into place. It is re­ally amaz­ing, and we give thanks and praise to God for the op­por­tu­nity, and he is mak­ing good use of the op­por­tu­nity.”

Ti­afoe, who said he tried to model his pow­er­ful first serve and fore­hand af­ter those of Amer­i­can James Blake and Spa­niard Juan Martín del Potro, will try to re­tain the cham­pi­onship he won at the Del­ray Beach Open, which be­gins Feb. 15. Be­fore that, how­ever, he re­turned to the JTCC, which he con­sid­ers home.

“It’s where I got started,” he said. “At that club, ev­ery­one shows so much love. It’s a fam­ily-ori­ented place, and they did ev­ery­thing for me. So I feel like ev­ery time I come home and then I go back, I play some great ten­nis. I feel like it’s all there, I feel like I’m in sync. I’m def­i­nitely recharged be­fore I go out and play an event. I love the whole coach­ing staff, I love the kids. I just have fun be­ing there. I just re­mem­ber be­ing a lit­tle kid and run­ning around there. So it’s nice.”

That mod­esty has been no­ticed by oth­ers. Univer­sity of Mary­land women’s ten­nis coach Daria Panova said Ti­afoe has gone out of his way to con­grat­u­late and en­cour­age her play­ers be­fore and af­ter their matches.

“It’s great to see that from some­body who’s play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally and is so sup­port­ive,” she said. “I think that pumps up the girls as well. A lot of great play­ers, some of them can be stand­off­ish and ar­ro­gant, but that’s not Frances. He’s very open, he’s very happy, he’s very hon­est. He’s not go­ing to walk by and not say any­thing. He still walks by me and says, ‘Hi, Coach.’ Some of the [pro­fes­sional] play­ers will walk by and won­der, ‘Who are you?’ He’s just a good hu­man be­ing.”

Ti­afoe is the No. 2 Amer­i­can male in the world be­hind John Is­ner, and some me­dia out­lets have be­gun call­ing him the next Amer­i­can hope in ten­nis. But Ti­afoe down­played such a la­bel.

“You just keep go­ing to work and keep try­ing to get bet­ter,” he said. “And it helps that I have so many other Amer­i­cans that I play ten­nis with. And I’m not just talk­ing about John and Ste­vie [John­son] and [Sam] Quer­rey. I’m talk­ing about Tay­lor Fritz and Reilly Opelka and Michael Mmoh. These guys are still young, and they’re com­ing up. So I think when we’re all fully at our primes and our best, I won’t be the only one up there.”

Franklin Ti­afoe, who knows his older brother per­haps bet­ter than any­one else, said Frances Ti­afoe is not yet sat­is­fied.

“Now that he’s been to the quar­ter­fi­nals of a Slam, it’s time to just keep work­ing,” the younger Ti­afoe said. “Next for him is Del Ray, which he won last year. So hope­fully, he’ll re­peat that and keep go­ing and keep climb­ing the rank­ings and keep be­ing a con­tender. That’s the next step, to be a con­tender to win a Slam.”

KIN CHE­UNG/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Frances Ti­afoe, left, con­grat­u­lates Rafel Nadal af­ter los­ing in their quar­ter­fi­nal match at the Aus­tralian Open last month.

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