His parents are from Sierra Leone, but Francis Tiafoe, 16, is being talked about as the next big American tennis star. He has won the 18-and-under titles at the top two U.S. junior events, making him the first player to pull that off since John McEnroe in 1976. Tiafoe just returned from the French Open and is getting ready to play at Wimbledon next week.
Tiafoe's daily routine begins at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in suburban Washington, D.C. He grew up playing tennis at this center where his father once worked as a maintenance man.
Frank Salazar, one of his coaches, says he’s known Tiafoe since he was five.
“He was always on the court all day long from sun up to sundown, and he played with anybody who had a pulse,” he said.
It has paid off. His numerous victories include a triumph at the prestigious Orange Bowl Junior tournament in Florida, following in the footsteps of legends such as Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and John McEnroe.
He was considered the top seed when he competed in the French Open junior tournament earlier this month. Although he lost in the second round, Tiafoe said it was a wonderful experience.
“Rolland Garros is probably one of the best [grand] slams you're going to go to," he said. "It’s really nice and it’s the first time I’ve been there. The treatment there is unbelievable, and the food there was great. I just had a great time there.”
As Tiafoe gets ready to make his debut at Wimbledon, Salazar says his biggest strengths are his love and aptitude for the game.
“One would be passion for the game, which I think hands down is one of the most important qualities he has," he said. "Two: because he’s been around tennis so many years, he’s developed a very high tennis IQ. Lastly, he has tremendous racket hit speed and tremendous feel in terms of when he makes contact and strikes the ball.”
On average, Tiafoe spends about four hours per day on the court and two hours in fitness training. He also has to attend school a few hours every day. It can be a grueling schedule, but Tiafoe says he does not mind.
“Some days, obviously, I am like 'Today is not the day,' but you got to push through, especially when my aspirations are to be pro, you can’t have any bad days," he said. "All these pros are getting better every day. You just want to catch up to them.”
He says when he’s not playing tennis, he spends time with friends and mentor Misha Kouznetsov, who has coached him since he was 8.
Tiafoe says he looks up to his mom, dad and twin brother who have taught him the value of hard work and humility in life. He’s been to Sierra Leone once, when he was eight years old, and has fond memories.
“I met all my family, cousins; I didn’t really realize I had so many cousins," he said. "It was good to see that environment; be around there and really see what my parents went through when they were younger.”
Although he has roots in Sierra Leone, Tiafoe is American through and through. He says his dream is to one day win the U.S. Open.