This is not a normal tennis story. This journey does not begin in sunny Florida, competitive Texas, or breezy California. It begins in Prince George County, Maryland. An area near Washington, DC while notable for the affluence of its African American population, it ranks 14th out of 24 counties statewide in overall wealth. This backdrop is also where many are hoping the current future of American tennis grew up. He is the youngest ATP title winner from the United States of America since Hall of Famer, Andy Roddick. He is also the first African-American male to win an ATP title in almost eleven years. If you haven’t guessed by now, the protagonist of our story is Frances Tiafoe, 20 year old winner of the 2018 Delray Beach Open.
The story begins with a bit of serendipity. Parents who immigrated from Sierre Leone and settled to have twins in Maryland. Soon after Frances Tiafoe and his brother were born, his father obtained a job constructing the College Park Tennis Club and stayed on in a maintenance role after construction was completed. When learning about Frances Tiafoe’s, upbringing he makes the point that “tennis chose him.” We shouldn’t digest that in a prophetic destiny type of way, but as a reminder that many children today still do not have access to opportunities to reach the highest potential they possess. Fortune gave Tiafoe a chance to hit balls at night in a facility that could charge $27,500 per year for their junior level instruction. Passion, perseverance, and helpful mentors began to structure his future.
Frances worked his way from hitting against the wall to becoming the world #2 in the junior rankings. Capping his junior resume with the Orange Bowl and USTA National Championships, stalwart barometers of future professional success. You may be thinking, “Oh I’ve heard this story before.” Yet most people know and forget that success in any form is rarely described similarly to the straight trajectory of a rocket ship launch. Tiafoe experienced ups (breaking into the top 100, winning Challenger titles) and downs (not qualifying for the ATP Next Gen finals, 0-7 record in ATP matches) in the past year. Reluctantly, those familiar murmurs of too much hype before actual receipts were beginning to creep in.
Until a return to his beloved Maryland, which he constantly reps off court like a friendly cloak of arms, inspired a clarity of mind and service technique that gave him the confidence to turn a wild card into a title run. Tiafoe told Kelvyn Soong of the Washington Post, “I was going through a lot mentally…Being back at the court I grew up in, being in a place everybody knows me, is the answer for me. To see my brother, see my friends, I think it builds character for me, just being accountable for myself.” Tiafoe’s story also holds all of us accountable. When we envision who could be a future champion in our minds why not make it as limitless as a Tiafoe groundstroke?