WASHINGTON, D.C. — As a kid with neither the typical tennis pedigree nor a ticket, Frances Tiafoe says he used to talk — or sneak — his way past the security guards on the grounds of Rock Creek Park when the pros came to town for a tournament one week each summer. He just wanted to watch what was then the Legg Mason Classic and see what the best players looked like up close.

Now, in what he has described as a Cinderella story, the 25-year-old from Hyattsville by way of first-generation African immigrants from Sierra Leone — one of whom was the maintenance head of a junior tennis facility in College Park, where Tiafoe first started playing the sport — is an elite player himself. He is ranked 10th in the world and is the United States’ top men’s tennis star.

And this week he’s back home.

Tiafoe, the ebullient 6-foot-2, 190-pound, quick, big-serving right-hander nicknamed “Big Foe,” as the chain around his neck says, is preparing for a late-summer encore to his star turn at last year’s U.S. Open in part by looking to win his hometown tournament, now called the Mubadala Citi D.C. Open, for the first time. And the expectation is he will.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“This tournament is one of the reasons why I play pro tennis,” he said the other day at a pre-tournament press conference at Rock Creek Park, where men’s and women’s competition runs through Sunday. “I used to sneak into this thing. Now, I just really want to win this event. It would be a very emotional day.”

Frances Tiafoe is aiming to win the tournament that made him want to become a tennis pro. (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

It would be emotional for a few people, most likely. Some of those same security personnel whom Tiafoe evaded or charmed on the boundaries of an urban national park that has hosted pro tennis since 1969 — a location lobbied for by the pioneering Arthur Ashe decades ago — are protecting him this week.

Tiafoe is the main attraction for thousands of fans including, he hopes, any little kids he can inspire like he once was by pros such as Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro, who signed Tiafoe’s first autograph at this very tournament, became his idol and whom he beat a few years ago. “We still laugh about it,” Tiafoe said after having seen a few familiar faces in white-and-blue security uniforms. “They’re saying, ‘Thank God I used to let you in back then.’”

If you know anything about Tiafoe, it’s easy to see why they did. His kid-like personality and natural inclination to joke are ever present in his mid-20s. And though no one, not even him, knew how his story would play out at the time, Tiafoe’s path to becoming just the third African American to reach the top 10 in men’s tennis’ computerized rankings era is as captivating as it is unlikely.

In the 1990s, his parents fled the civil war in Sierra Leone and found a new home in Maryland. Tiafoe’s mom, Alphina, worked two nursing jobs, and he and his twin brother spent some nights sleeping in his dad’s office at the Junior Tennis Champions Center, where Constant Tiafoe worked the grounds and his son picked up a racquet at age 4. He eventually got a full-ride scholarship to the center and made the most of it.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“He’s like the greatest role model we can all have, and one of the great figureheads for our whole DMV community,” said D.C. Open tournament director Mark Ein, an entrepreneur, investor and former ball boy at the event, who is also part of the new ownership group of the NFL’s Washington Commanders.

It was not a straight or quick road to stardom. Tiafoe made his pro debut in D.C. way back in 2014 as a 16-year-old injury replacement. He’s gradually climbed the world rankings and gained seasoning over the years, but he was still mostly unknown beyond educated tennis circles until late last summer. Tiafoe’s breakout U.S. Open performance, when he beat Rafael Nadal en route to becoming the first Black American man in 50 years and first American since 2006 to reach the semifinals, put him on the sports and pop-culture map.

And how Tiafoe did it — with flair, emotion, authenticity, a touch of humor in interviews, big sweeping unorthodox forehands and deft touch at the net on key points — won over many new fans, as did an all-access look at his life in Netflix’s “Break Point” series that captured his run. It ended with a four-hour-plus semifinal loss to now-world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain.

In D.C. this week, Tiafoe is seeded second in the 48-player men’s singles field and is also entered in the doubles draw to get extra matches. In his opening singles match on Tuesday night, Tiafoe beat Russian Aslan Karatsev in a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) two-hour-plus match to advance to the Round of 16, where Tiafoe will face 17-year-old prodigy Juncheng Shang of China on Thursday night.

“Everyone knows what this tournament means to me,” Tiafoe said. “It’s just an honor to be here and compete in front of everybody. Everyone’s super excited to have me here this year. I’m just looking forward to it.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

View post on Twitter

Although Tiafoe has lived and trained in Florida for years, this is essentially a weeklong home game for him, surrounded by family and friends (such as another local hero, Kevin Durant, sitting courtside Tuesday night). It also represents a chance at redemption and a potential catalyst as Tiafoe eyes another deep run at tennis’ next major tournament, the U.S. Open in New York.

He exited Wimbledon in the third round, much earlier than he intended, losing in straight sets to Grigor Dimitrov, whom he could face in the semifinals in D.C. this weekend. After the loss in England, Tiafoe told reporters the outcome was “very, very depressing” and “horrible stuff.” He suggested he may have felt the weight of having recently reached the top 10 in the world after winning a Wimbledon tune-up tournament in Germany in June, his third career pro title.

Tiafoe has repeatedly said he’s accomplished more than he ever thought he would and he understands the importance of his place in the game, joining Ashe and James Blake as the only African American men to reach the top 10 in the last several decades. He’s won multiple tournaments and made more than $9 million in career prize money, yet he wants more. His best results in majors are last year’s semifinal at the U.S. Open and a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open in 2019.

On Sunday, Tiafoe admitted he’s wondering what comes next as much as anyone else as he gets used to life at the top of the game. He wants a Grand Slam more than anything.

“You and I are both about to find out how it is to maintain being in the top 10 because I have never done it before,” he said. “I want to stay in the top 10, I want to be eight, I want to be seven, five, one. But flat-out truth, if I’m 10 or five, I would rather win a Slam at this point. … If I’m three in the world and never won a Slam, that would be hard for me. … Cracking the top 10 is great and is a huge milestone for me and my family. Now it’s about trying to win [a Slam]. If I do that, I don’t know if you’ll see me again. No, I’m joking but it will be one hell of a day.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In one way, the setback at Wimbledon could be another step in the development of Tiafoe’s career. He cracked the top 100 in 2016 at age 18. Two years later he won his first ATP Tour title and entered the top 50, and in 2020, at age 22, he became the youngest American to reach the U.S. Open round of 16 in nearly 10 years. Then he made the fourth round again in 2021 before his breakout 2022 run. This year, he won his second career title on clay in April in Houston before heading to England in good form.

The early end to his Wimbledon reminded some observers of the inconsistent pandemic year of 2020 when Tiafoe dropped to 84th in the world, but he appears to be miles ahead of where he was as a player then and said that year served as a “revamp” for him. That was before he got to work closely with his current coach and former top-10 player, Wayne Ferreira, who brought a fresh perspective to Tiafoe’s training and helped him see what he was capable of and what he needed to do.

Frances Tiafoe plays a backhand against Aslan Karatsev during their second-round match at the French Open. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

In a scene in Netflix’s all-access series filmed at last year’s U.S. Open, Ferreira was captured in an episode featuring Tiafoe speaking plainly after a match about improving his serve, for example. “You have to try to see if there’s a way to figure out how to reset on the serve,” Ferreira said, and Tiafoe responded that he thought his coach was joking. He wasn’t. “You spent three sets serving like shit. You just made it much harder than it could have been.”

“We worked on a lot, but I think the most important has been focus,” Ferreira said in the episode. “He’s had to change a little bit of his personality and the fun side to try to get a little bit more serious. He has the ability to do it.”

“The maturity over the years of doing things a little bit more professionally, taking the little details seriously, I’m sure he would say he’s taken those things to another level,” USTA general manager of player development Martin Blackman, who ran the Junior Tennis Champions Center from 2003 to 2009, said in an interview.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Still, Tiafoe likes to have fun. For instance, as he entered a room to speak with the media Sunday, he saw reporters, cameras and his friend and fellow young American talent Chris Eubanks — who reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Tiafoe started yelling, “Hollywood! Hey, final eight of Wimbledon right here! Chris Eubanks!” and later joked about a match they played at the U.S. Open in 2021.

“Welcome to Frances Tiafoe’s press conference,” an ATP Tour rep transitioned as Eubanks left and Tiafoe sat behind a microphone, giddy and ready to talk. He covered all the themes about his place in tennis, including sounding like a veteran who has learned the value of when to be serious and about what. “The small changes create big results,” he said.

Asked how he will stay fresh during this hot summer American hardcourt season that culminates with the U.S. Open, Tiafoe said with a mix of humor and earnestness, “Stay my ass inside unless I have to be outside. Hydrate a lot. Eat well. Rest is very important. Just be super low-key. Don’t exert any energy that’s not for the court. If I don’t need to be outside doing anything, you won’t see me around.”

That doesn’t refer to practice, though, which may be getting more serious for Tiafoe these days. On Saturday night, after thunderstorms moved through the area, upended the tournament’s qualifying schedule and damaged some temporary facilities at Rock Creek Park, Tiafoe still managed to get on a court for a hitting session after 9:30 p.m., with no fans or media around. Not that he would have minded if anyone was watching, whether they had a ticket or were a little kid who sneaked in for a free peek.

“That one kid could be me one day, you know?” he said. “Why not?”

Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.

More From The Banner