Tennis fans have known that Frances Tiafoe, of Hyattsville, Maryland, was on the cusp of blowing up in the sport, and he appears to have broken through Monday with his upset win over Rafael Nadal at the U.S. Open. But at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, it wasn’t as surprising — “it was a matter of ‘when.’”
That’s what Robin Montgomery, 18, from Northwest D.C., said as she took the court for training Tuesday morning. Her own pro career is just getting started, and she said Tiafoe is like an older brother to her.
“Seeing him accomplish something that big is obviously inspiring for me and the younger kids who grew up out of here — and it’s just a huge accomplishment, and we’re so proud of him,” she said. “Since I’ve been coming here, he’s someone who I’ve looked up to, and we’ve gotten closer over the years.”
Montgomery said most tennis players are “honestly, kind of like me — very serious on the court, no joking around.” But Tiafoe is “funny and very generous,” she said, adding, “I like how he involves the crowd, puts jokes on the court. I think it’s good for the sport.”
“Off the court he’s just a very kind person,” she added. “He just likes to have fun, make sure everyone’s smiling. Everyone sees him smiling. Good energy.”
“I knew he had it in him,” she said.
Montgomery won the singles and doubles competitions at the Girls U.S. Open last year, and said Tiafoe will occasionally offer some advice as she transitions into playing professional events on a fulltime basis. It was tennis that bonded them initially, but off the court they tend to talk about everything but tennis.
“If anything, we just goof around with each other and we don’t get too serious that often,” she said. “Tennis is a draining sport. … Whenever I hang out with him, we try to make sure that we just have fun and we’re just relaxed.”
It’s different when he talks with his former coach, Oliver Akli, who said he worked with Tiafoe in College Park just before the tournament started and spoke with him Sunday night.
“I told him, ‘Look, Nadal is an unbelievable player. But look at his age, look at your age. You have to be more physical with him,’” recounted Akli.
Now that he’s beaten the legend, Akli said, “The one thing I want him to do is, I want him to keep going — not to relax and ‘I just beat Nadal; I have to relax.’ No, no, no. You want to always keep the momentum going. Let everybody know ‘I’m ready this year.’”
He said Tiafoe, one of the more charismatic and best-liked players in tennis, is playing with more maturity on the court, after maturing off of it.
“You can tell right now he believes in his game — he knows his game; he knows what he’s supposed to be doing at the moment,” said Akli. “At that high level, as soon as you lose your focus a little bit, you’re out. He has huge confidence right now. He’s ready for anyone.”
His success is also inspiring the teenagers who are training in the hopes of following Tiafoe to professional careers. Stefan Regalia and Cyrus Mahjoob are both DMV natives who train at the JTCC and have practiced with Tiafoe.
“He’s always been a pretty unreal player,” said Mahjoob. “I knew he was a sick player. I’ve seen him put in the work recently. He’s been putting in the effort.”
Mahjoob said he spent about two hours hitting back and forth with Tiafoe recently, “and my forearm was dying by the end of it,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. He does a great job bringing the energy, making sure everyone on court is putting everything they have into it.”
Regalia said playing with Tiafoe is “insanely hard.” He lauded the power and the spin Tiafoe is able to put on the balls even when they’re hitting casually.
“It’s never easy hitting with him, but it’s always a great time,” he said. “It’s always very good for me and I hope it’s good for him.”
Regalia said Monday’s match yesterday was all anyone in the classroom setting was talking about.
“I watched the whole match. It was amazing,” he said. “It’s great for the center and it’s great for him. … I hope it really puts us more on the map.”
Everyone agreed Tiafoe has what it takes to win his first Grand Slam trophy.
“The way he’s playing right now, he has the level,” said Regalia.
“I think he could go all the way, ability-wise,” said Mahjoob. “If he just locks in, he could go all the way.”
Montgomery agreed, adding, “Obviously it’s one match at a time. That’s the main thing, if I were to tell him something.”