Tiafoe, Kastles find new tennis homes in DC

July 16, 2019

WTOP/Noah Frank

A look up from street level at the rooftop at Union Market, where the Washington Kastles are playing this summer. (WTOP/Noah Frank) (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Frances Tiafoe (far court, right) and his Kastles teammates warm up before Monday’s match. (WTOP/Noah Frank) (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Tiafoe is not only playing both for the Kastles and in Citi Open for the second straight year, he is also making D.C. his full-time home. (WTOP/Noah Frank) (WTOP/Noah Frank)
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If anyone feels at home playing tennis on a rooftop, it might just be Frances Tiafoe.

Sure, he’s active away from the tennis court like any other 21-year-old, go-karting and Topgolfing with friends. But his favorite space to spend his spare time is at the rooftop of his building on the Wharf in Southwest D.C., hanging out in or beside the infinity pool.

This summer, he’s plying his trade on a different roof, that of Union Market, where the Washington Kastles opened their 2019 World Team Tennis season in their cozy, 700-seat, outdoor venue with a 21-18 loss to the Las Vegas Rollers.

Thus began the month of Mark Ein’s tennis ventures in Washington, with the Kastles final home match coinciding with the first day of Citi Open, on July 27. But unlike years past, this won’t be the only time Tiafoe is spending in D.C. While he used to train in Florida in the offseason and mostly just jump from tournament to tournament around the world, Washington is now his home base once again, just as it was when he grew up in College Park.

“I’ve actually been here for the majority of the time and I think I’m going to keep doing that. I really like being here in D.C.,” he said. “There’s a ton of great venues, like my academy in Maryland.”

The Junior Tennis Champions Center, where Tiafoe’s father worked and where Frances famously grew up and was discovered, is now a home base once again. It’s a place where he’s revered by the kids who walk the halls, but also a way to stay grounded to his upbringing.

“It’s like I’m a junior again. I go there every day,” he said. “Get that home feel again and just enjoy that environment. Obviously, that’s all I know, and being comfortable on your off weeks is extremely important.”

Tiafoe’s also flying home each off week he has now, jumping on the first available flight to spend more mornings at the JTCC and nights in his own bed. Now, playing in his second season with the Kastles, a team he grew up watching as a kid, he seems almost Ein’s on-the-court counterpart, as good a face of D.C. tennis as Ein could have possibly dreamed of when he first invested in the sport in Washington.

“I love the ideas that Mark comes up with,” Tiafoe said of the Kastles’ rooftop arena. “He’s a great owner, and he loves tennis and loves this city. We’re great friends, and anything he does, I’m more than happy to participate.”

Ironically, despite his embrace of his hometown, Tiafoe’s best showing of the year to date may have come in the furthest tournament from home. His surprising run all the way to the Australian Open quarterfinals, including a win over a Top 10 player in Kevin Anderson, showcased his personality and also his potential, especially on the hard court. Now that the clay and grass court seasons have passed — and with them, five-set, first-round exits at both the French Open and Wimbledon — Tiafoe is happy to return to the environment that suits his game best.

“I think my best surface right now is probably the hard court,” he said, reflecting back to the Australian Open. “I played well. It just taught me that if I just bring my game, if I play aggressive and play to win, I think I can compete against anybody.”

And while Australia may be a long way from D.C., the hot days and hard surfaces are both in full supply on the rooftop of Union Market and the Rock Creek Tennis Center. It’s a chance for Tiafoe to take advantage of the conditions that he thrived under Down Under.

“Hot days on a hard court, obviously bounces are high, the ball’s live. It helps my forehand, helps my serve. Guys who can move quick and cut angles off usually have a lot of success on quicker surfaces,” he said.

It also will help him prepare for his primary goal this year, to boost his ranking back up from its current perch at 41 and into the top 30 once again, to secure a seed at the U.S. Open (another sweltering, hard court tournament, anyone?) in September.

That summer push began Monday night, and though the team lost, Tiafoe outplayed friend Reilly Opelka in the men’s singles match, 5-2, before falling in the first game of extended play. And while there was, unsurprisingly, some opening night buggieness, overall the experiment seemed to be an enjoyable one for those in attendance.

Monday was, all things considered, about as nice of a day as could be expected in the peak of Washington summer. It was in the low 90s, but relatively dry, and once the sun finally made its way nearly to the horizon, the soft breeze on the rooftop took over, leaving a beautiful and comfortable night under the lights.

Despite being just three stories up, the height-restricted flatness of D.C. means the views stretch to include RFK to the East, the Capitol and Washington Monument to the South, and Catholic University’s tower and basilica to the Northwest. And once the blare of the sun softened along the western skyline, well, it was all just a little more picturesque than the inside of the Smith Center, the Kastles’ former home.

To say there isn’t a bad seat in the house is a wild under exaggeration; there isn’t a spectator that couldn’t easily end up with an errant ball or a winning overhand smash in their lap. Despite the proximity of seats to the court, most errant balls came in fairly softly and without incident, off deflections.

Ein told WTOP the surface was just finished on Sunday, and the newness of the entire setup may have led to some of the hiccups Monday night. The automated Hawkeye call system made a half dozen accidental “fault” or “out” calls midpoint, finally prompting the chair umpire to tell the frustrated players “it’s not me, it’s coming from downstairs.”

Perhaps because of that, there was a scoring snafu in the fourth set of the night, ladies doubles, in which the chair umpire confused the score multiple times, sending the exasperated crowd into a near mutiny to go get the right numbers on the board themselves.

The scenes behind the action are also a little less glamorous, but at least they’re air-conditioned. Down on the second floor, below the roof but above the market, a series of white curtains drape off VIP areas, players areas and a makeshift media room. Like the entire enterprise, it’s a work in progress, but one about which Tiafoe has no concerns, as he buys in for the summer.

“Mark’s my guy,” he said. “I’m more than confident he’s going to do a good job with whatever he chooses.”

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