It is 8:50 a.m., and I have 10 minutes to get to an interview with Frances Tiafoe Sr. Traffic is clogged in all directions amid a nasty late November rain. I have transcended the muttering stage and am now banging on the steering wheel at every stoplight.
As I pull into the Tennis Center at College Park parking lot, I am relieved to see just a handful of cars. This is a small lot that fills quickly. The clock reads 9:58.
I hardly wanted to be late for this meeting with Tiafoe whose teenage son has the potential to become the first black American male to win a Grand Slam championship — more specifically the U.S. Open – since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975.
I have a bunch of questions, but I mostly just want to meet the father of Frances Tiafoe Jr., the 18-year-old ATP World Tour Next Generation star, who has a joyful smile and delightful disposition. I wanted to see if the teenager got his engaging personality honestly.
I was not disappointed.
The desk attendant ushers me through the lobby, past a wall of fame bearing photos of former juniors who trained at the center, including the young Tiafoe and Dennis Kudla, an eight-year pro, to the clay courts where Tiafoe Sr. is engaged in a singles match.
The Tennis Center at College Park is home to the Junior Tennis Champions Center, and is a United States Tennis Association (USTA) regional training site.
Frances Tiafoe Sr., commonly known as Constance among his friends, has dreadlocks pulled back into a braid and covered by a purple white and green bandana. His sweat-darkened green Fila T-shirt indicates he has been playing for a while. He greets me with a wave and asks to give him about five minutes.
I learn later he already had won two sets 6-4; 6-4, but was down 3-7 in a 10-point tiebreaker when I walked in. He rallied to win 11-9.
As I watched him play, I could easily see the natural athleticism in Frances Sr. that obviously passed on to his son. His strokes, however, are nowhere near as polished and powerful as those of his son, who now ranks just outside the ATP’s top 100.
The young Tiafoe nearly upset John Isner, the highest-ranked American on tour, in the first round of this year’s U.S. Open in a five-set thriller I was fortunate enough to witness in person. Tiafoe actually served for the match, but faltered in what at the time was the biggest moment of his career.
I ask Frances Sr. his feelings about that match, played before thousands on the new Grandstand court at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., where the New York Mets baseball stadium looms in the background.
“He proved to everybody that he can play at that level,” he says. “He gave it his all. I mean for a kid 18…He had it.”
Indeed. Tiafoe Jr. served for the match but was unable to close it out. The father says it took his son about 40-50 minutes to get over the loss and resolve to train harder.
“He just needs to work on some things. In tennis, even if you’re number one, you still gotta work on a lot of stuff.”
Frances Tiafoe Sr., 54, is a native of Sierra Leone, who moved to Maryland after spending six years in London. He helped build TCCP as a construction worker in 1999, then shortly afterward became head of maintenance.
Frances Sr. would bring his twin sons, Frances Jr. and Franklin, in a stroller to spend the day with him at the center. At age 4, they began swinging a racquet. But it was Frances Jr. who caught the attention of parents and coaches while still in elementary school.
“Other parents were coming to me and saying your son is doing very well,” Frances Sr. tells me. “Some suggested he get into a program because he was really good. He was playing 13-year-olds at the time.”
Frances Jr. excelled at the junior level, winning major boys tournaments like the Easter Bowl and the boys 18 national championships, which qualifies for a spot in the main draw of the U.S. Open. In 2013, he became the youngest player ever to win the Orange Bowl at 15. He ended 2014 as the No. 2 junior in the world.
Since turning pro at the end of 2014, young Tiafoe’s rise in the rankings has been phenomenal. He began 2015 ranked 1,145 and ended the year at 176. This past October, he cracked the top 100 for the first time and will finish the year at 108.
For Frances Sr., the climb has been remarkable.
“Think about it; two years ago, he turned pro and now he’s in the top 100.”
For Frances Jr., the climb is not over. In a recent ATP.com video, he tells viewers he hopes to do even better in 2017.
“I would love to crack into the top 50,” he says. “That would be unbelievable for me.”
I ask Frances Sr. how has his life been affected by his son’s success. He rolls his head back and goes, “Oh, man…
“It’s like he keeps getting good, and my life keeps changing. Right now, all the kids (at TCCP) ask me all the questions: how do you keep him motivated; how does he train; what does he eat?”
The biggest change has been his retirement in 2013 so he can spend more time on tour with his son. He’s now looking to relocate to South Florida to be closer to Frances Jr., who trains at the USTA’s new complex in Orlando.
Frances Sr. says he talks to his son daily and continuously counsels him on staying grounded.
“I want to make sure he doesn’t get big head and think you’re bigger than everybody. I taught them a long time ago, no matter how much money you make, just play tennis as usual. I don’t see money as everything. It’s nice to have, but it doesn’t go to my head.”
Frances Sr. is equally proud of Franklin, who has a scholarship to play tennis at Salisbury University on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
I ask Frances Sr. about Frances Jr.’s aspirations as a pro.
“His goal is to win the U.S. Open. For me, that has to happen before he turns 20. To win the U.S. Open in four years after turning pro, that would be unbelievable. I don’t know who has that kind of record.”
I ask about his own tennis game and learn he plays almost every day, often more than once. Having already played singles before our interview, he plans to play doubles once we’re done.
At six feet tall, Frances Sr. is rangy and athletic, but not as powerfully sculpted as his tennis pro son who is 6’2” and weighs 182pounds. He acknowledges, he didn’t start playing tennis until his sons took up the sport. He, like most Africans, he says, was a soccer fan.
He speaks modestly about his skill level.
“When I was in Africa I was a sprinter. I taught myself how to play. I’m a 3.5 (USTA rating). I don’t want to go up, and I don’t want to go down. People say I’m more than that. I took a lesson with the top coach here for about a month. But he wanted to teach me like he teaches the kids. At my age, I’m not ready for that. I don’t want to play tournaments.”
He leaves that level of competition to his sons.