Tiafoe’s US Open run delights Prince George’s fans old and new

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 as he is. He was finishing work at a Riverdale bar Wednesday afternoon when a man came in and asked the bartender to flip to the US Open. Someone local was playing.

And Prince Georgian? In the quarterfinals?

“We’ve got to put that on,” Glass said, and he watched, hooked, as the Marylander closed in on a historic win — for Tiafoe, and for the county he’d represented on American tennis’s biggest stage.

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

“He’s exemplifying 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 Junior Tennis Champions Center (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 got a free spot in the JTCC’s beginner tennis clinics through his father’s work as the center’s maintenance man. He played daily, running over to the adjacent court to mimic older players after his age-group lessons finished, and told his father by age 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 bobbleheads.

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 his increasingly high station. The athletes who train there say he feels like an older brother to them.

“He’s always joking around,” said Ameera Malik, 18, from College Park. “You never see Frances mad, ever. Most of the time, I’m the one who’s upset because of a 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’ve practiced together and rallied at full speed.

“I knew I wouldn’t be hitting too many winners on him,” Mahjoob said, laughing.

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Tiafoe has come close — agonizingly close — to a breakout moment at the US Open in past years. In 2017, he lost to Roger Federer in five sets in a titanic first round clash. Twice before, he’s made the fourth round. He first signaled that this year might 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 highway when he caught a glimpse of his former student’s score on his phone. He took the next exit and ran into a Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the end of the match.

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

No one doubted Tiafoe could go far in the tournament. And he’d just taken out one of the sport’s toughest competitors. So Malik and Mahjoob were optimistic as they were huddled with their 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, still had a tough assignment against the ninth-seeded Rublev. The tennis center crowd mirrored the partisan atmosphere in New York, gasping when a Rublev lob landed in by inches and whooping when Tiafoe ventured to the net to finish points with a deft volley — the same as the ones they’d been on the receiving end of so many times in practice. Slowly, a confident Tiafoe took out a lead. A staff member told the younger kids in front to stand up and cheer so ESPN could pipe in a reaction shot. When a Tiafoe return flew past Rublev to seal the second set, they leaped 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, tinkering to improve his backhand — “There, see?” he said, as Tiafoe laced one down the line to win 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 kid and felt a bond with his Sierra Leonean family from the start. Tiafoe’s success is a thesis statement of sorts for the JTCC, which alongside its paid tennis academy offers scholarships and runs several community outreach programs for majority-Black and Hispanic cohorts in schools and community centers across the District and Prince George’s — a rare investment in an industry that traditionally caters solely to the wealthy families who can afford top-level tennis training.

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

“Most of them say, ‘Oh, we’ve 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 towards victory, the patrons watching the game at the Riverdale bar grew more restless. At a table across the bar from Glass, Joe Clair and Denise Mitchell fidgeted in their seats. Between laughs, Clair joked — “The mortgage is riding on this!”

Cheers broke out when Tiafoe finally clinched the match with a searing ace. Glass looked behind him and shared a grin 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’s from College Park.”

“Especially coming in the week where the youth of Prince George’s County have been put on a curfew,” Clair said. (County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks announced Monday that Prince George’s would enforce a month-long curfew on youth under 17 after a spike in gun violence.) “To have a youth from Prince George’s County in the quarterfinals of the US 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 rolled 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 from 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 whole nation.”

He’d 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’ll be back to watch on Friday when Tiafoe faces third-seeded Carlos Alcaraz of Spain.

“We’ve got to finish it,” Akli said. “And then we can celebrate.”


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

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