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By Don Henthorne | Wednesday, August 19, 2015

 
Frances Tiafoe

Seventeen-year-old Frances Tiafoe won the USTA Boys' 18 National Championships to earn a U.S. Open main-draw wild card.

Photo credit: Tallahassee Challenger

At the age of 17, Frances Tiafoe already knows quite a bit about overcoming challenges.

Earlier this month, Tiafoe fought off Stefan Kozlov, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, in a punishing four-hour marathon final to win the USTA Boys' 18 National Championship and earn a wild card into the U.S. Open main draw.

Both players took treatment for cramps and when the battle was over, Tiafoe said:  "I had so many things going through my mind. It was such a relief. It was very tough."

More: Coric Edges Zverev In Cincinnati Young Guns Battle

It is the second time this year Tiafoe has won a Grand Slam main-draw wild card. Shortly after turning pro in April, Tiafoe advanced to the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger final and earned the Har-Tru USTA Pro Circuit wild card into Roland Garros.

In his Grand Slam debut, Tiafoe fell to Martin Klizan in Paris. Graduating to his first Grand Slam was a major achievement for Tiafoe.

Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, who also plays tennis are the sons of Constant and Alphina Tiafoe, who immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone. France's father worked on the construction crew that built the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. His father was eventually hired as the Center's custodian and Frances and Franklin both grew up training at the center.

Already ranked No. 271 four months after turning pro, Tiafoe is looking forward to his U.S. Open debut—and cracking the Top 200 by the end of the year.

Generation next is rising fast. Established American players suggest the younger set are all capable of making an impact on the pro circuit eventually.

"All those guys could break through: Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka. They're all really good," said Sam Querrey after defeating American No. 1 John Isner in Cincinnati yesterday. "Tommy Paul. I couldn't pick one."

Tiafoe knows growing pains are part of the maturation process. Working with veteran coach Jose Higueras, he's aiming to add variety to his arsenal and use his speed and explosiveness to play "quick-strike tennis."

We caught up with Tiafoe ahead of his U.S. Open debut later this month for this interview.

Tennis Now: You are working with coach Jose Higueras, who has worked with Roger Federer, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Todd Martin and Carlos Moya, among others. What does he bring to your game?

Frances Tiafoe: A lot of knowledge. He was a great player and is an unbelievable coach. It’s tough to put into words. We just started, but he is making some changes to my game. He is trying to make me play a more all-court game.

TN: More aggressive?

Frances Tiafoe: Yeah and more variety, cause that’s how the game was played when he was playing it. He wants me to come into the net more, you know.

TN: You recently signed with Jay-Z’s sports management team, Roc Nation—how did that come about?

Frances Tiafoe: They saw me on Good Morning America, liked my story and messaged my lawyer and asked if it would be okay to talk to me. And I was very interested obviously. And then I met with him a couple times. He’s a really nice guy.

TN: You have been a pro for a few months, what are some of the differences between playing in the juniors and playing the pro tour?

Frances Tiafoe: The level obviously is a lot higher and some things like expenses are tougher because it’s all up to me. There is no federation paying for things. It is a lot more serious and especially when it comes to trying to make a living. But I really enjoy it and I love getting to play against the best players in the world.

TN: Who are your best friends on the tour? Who do you hang out with?

Frances Tiafoe: Most of the Americans, I get along with everyone pretty well. But I make new friends every week.

TN: You had such a stellar junior career, do you feel the weight of American expectations as you transition into the pros?

Frances Tiafoe: I don’t think there is any pressure. There are some really good young Americans coming up, such a good group, like (Tommy) Paul and (Taylor) Fritz in the finals of the French and (Reilly) Opelka winning Wimbledon and there are many others, so I think I am only one of many. I don’t really feel like the only person who has a chance to be great. I’m pretty happy there are a lot of other guys and we can push each other. Hopefully, we can all get to the top together, that would be great.

TN: It does seem like there is another impressive wave of American players coming and that maybe you are leading it.

Frances Tiafoe: I wouldn’t say I was leading it. I think we are all the same.

TN: Who inspires you off the tennis court?

Frances Tiafoe: Kevin Durant. He grew up in the same area I grew up in and is a big celebrity there. I really look up to him, very professional and family oriented. I like the way he carries himself. I have a lot of respect for him.

TN: Who are you favorite players to watch on the tour?

Frances Tiafoe: Definitely Novak, has an unbelievable game, my favorite player was Del Po until he suffered with so many injuries. He was incredible player and has an unbelievable personality. I really like him.


TN: Are there any playing styles you tried to emulate as you were growing up?

Frances Tiafoe: Yeah, I like quick-strike tennis. I am trying to do that even more now. When I am playing my best, that is what I’m doing.

TN: What are your favorite shots to hit?

Frances Tiafoe: My forehand for sure and then probably my backhand.

TN: What are your goals for the rest of the year?

Frances Tiafoe: I would like to crack the Top 200 by the end of the year. I know it will be tough but if I play well I think I might be able to do it, that’s my goal anyway, so I can start next year off right leading into the Australian Open.

TN: What is your favorite surface to play on and your favorite tournament?

Frances Tiafoe: I like sliding on the clay, it’s fun to play on and tournament… is probably the Citi Open, cause I grew up there and have been going to it since I was five years old. The players seem to like it and it’s just a great tournament.

Tennis Now contributing writer Don Henthorne is a tennis teaching pro in the Chicago area, tennis historian and former long-time staffer for Tennis Week Magazine in New York City. His previous TN interviews with Coach Mark Bey are here and here.


 

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