Stoney Cooks sometimes sees Frances Tiafoe training in the same tennis facility as her. Cooks is 10; Tiafoe is a 20-year-old pro.
“He’s usually just hitting. Sometimes I say ‘Hi, Frances,’ and he says hi,” Cooks said. “But last year, I asked him to remember my name and he remembered my name.”
Cooks and some of her peers were at the Citi Open in Rock Creek Park for the “Stars of Tomorrow” competition for 10-and-under players, repping the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park against other local clubs.
Tiafoe, a College Park native, was in their shoes not long ago. He’s now the 41st-ranked men’s singles tennis player in the world and on the hunt for his first Grand Slam title.
While casual fans are still learning about Tiafoe, the D.C. region’s tennis community saw him coming. At the Citi Open this week, he is the hometown favorite and for some, much more.
“We spent last week at the Washington Kastles matches and our kids actually got to hit with (Tiafoe),” said Rebecca Crouch, president of the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF). “And literally in that moment, I could see the sparkle in their eye. They lit up.”
Tiafoe’s story is just as well-documented as it is worth retelling. His parents emigrated from Sierra Leone to the U.S. and his father helped build the JTTC, then took a job as its custodian. Tiafoe and his brother Franklin stayed on the premises with their father, played tennis constantly and began taking lessons.
Tiafoe is based in Florida, where many tennis and golf pros can practice year round, but he has trained more and more at JTTC this year, somewhere he feels comfortable. His presence back home has had an impact in more ways than one.
The WTEF, which owns and operates the Citi Open, aims to serve underprivileged communities through introducing kids to tennis and encouraging academic excellence. Tiafoe recently surprised the organization, Crouch said, when he donated some proceeds from a charity tournament to the WTEF. He’s also taken time to play with the Kastles, the local World Team Tennis team, where he’s interacted with WTEF kids.
Tiafoe has said that it’s one of his “biggest motivations” to inspire more black children to pick up tennis, a goal that aligns with WTEF’s work.
“I think that if you are this young playing a sport, in order to believe that you can be No. 1 or No. 2, No. 1 or 2 has to in some way, shape or form look like you,” Crouch said.
“I gotta put on as good an example as I can,” Tiafoe said. “Obviously I’m not home as much, but anything I can do for them, I would. Playing with them, talking with them.”
Children of a certain age don’t soon forget meeting or talking with a star in their sport of choice. Near the “Stars of Tomorrow” courts Monday, Cooks and her JTCC friends broke down Tiafoe’s mechanics with the knowledge of tennis veterans.
“He has his forehand grip for his backhand grip, so he goes like this,” Maryland native and 9-year-old Nico Pedraza demonstrated. “Elbow goes like this. Because when he was young he didn’t know how to hit a backhand, and then he just took his forehand grip as his backhand grip and had to put his elbow up.”
Tiafoe will play his first match of the week on Tuesday. Sticking with the “DMV” theme, he’ll also compete in the men’s doubles draw with friend Denis Kudla, another JTCC alum who grew up in Fairfax and Arlington.
At the 2014 Citi Open, Tiafoe played his first main draw in an ATP World Tour event as a 16-year-old. He remembers it as a nerve-racking debut, but it also “feels a little weird” to have a seed and a first-round bye at the tournament he grew up attending, he said.
“I’ve come from sitting front row to getting hit by John Isner’s serves to being 16 and walking on the court, (thinking) ‘What am I really doing? Are we really playing in the Citi Open right now?’” Tiafoe said. “To now playing and being seeded in the event. It’s all a dream come true.”
For a few days before the Citi Open, Tiafoe again trained at JTCC, where he’s looked up to by the next generation as a hero and still remembered as a tyke by some other employees.
“The only thing they’ll say to me at times is they sit there and see a little kid walking around, dragging a little tennis racquet around,” he said. “Now they’re like, ‘Wow, he’s 40th in the world and people actually know the name Frances Tiafoe.’”