A Georgian prince? In the quarter-finals?
“We have to put this on,” Glass said, and he watched, hooked, as Marylander edged closer to a historic win — for Tiafoe and for the county he had represented on America’s tennis biggest stage.
Glass rattled off a list of famous Prince George athletes. Kevin Durant. Michael Beasley. Now they have another – this time in tennis – after Tiafoe beat Russia’s Andrey Rublev, 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-0), 6-4, to qualify for the Friday’s semi-finals.
“He exemplifies the standard of what Prince George’s County is,” Glass said.
Tiafoe already has his fans in the county where he was born and raised. In College Park, dozens of players gathered at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTTC) to watch the tennis academy’s most famous alumnus.
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The JTCC was a second home for Tiafoe, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone who, at the age of 5, won a free place in JTCC’s beginner tennis clinics thanks to his father’s work as a as the center’s maintenance man. He played every day, running to the adjacent pitch to imitate the older players after his age group lessons ended, and told his father when he was 6 that he wanted to be the best player to leave the club.
“There was so much desire, drive and hunger,” said Misha Kouznetsov, Tiafoe’s former coach.
In December 2013, Tiafoe became the youngest player at 15 to win the Orange Bowl, the most prestigious international title for boys 18 and under. There followed a long ascent through the ranks of professional tennis. Now copies of the tennis star’s awards and newspaper articles line the JTCC clubhouse walls, and the center stores Tiafoe bobbleheads.
But Tiafoe, who as a professional player continues to use the JTCC as a base camp for training between tournaments, does not carry the importance of his increasingly high position. Athletes who train there say he feels like a big brother to them.
“He’s always joking,” said Ameera Malik, 18, of College Park. “You never see Frances angry, ever. Most of the time, it’s me who gets upset because of bad training or whatever, and he comes and jokes with me.
“He was really in the community,” said 16-year-old Cyrus Mahjoob of Rockville, who first met Tiafoe when he joined a game with Mahjoob’s youth class. Since then, they have trained together and mobilized at full speed.
“I knew I wouldn’t have too many winners on him,” Mahjoob said with a laugh.
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Tiafoe has come close — awfully close — to a breakout moment at the US Open in recent years. In 2017, he lost to Roger Federer in five sets in a titanic first-round clash. Twice before, he’s made the fourth round. He first signaled that this year could be different on Monday, when he upset second seed Rafael Nadal to reach the quarter-finals on Wednesday.
“My mom, she called me crying,” Malik said. “And I cried too because it’s like, Frances, man.”
Kouznetsov, who now teaches private tennis lessons in DC, was on the freeway when he spotted his former student’s score on his phone. He took the next exit and ran into a Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the end of the game.
“I was like, listen, I gotta see this in person,” he said.
No one doubted that Tiafoe could go far in the tournament. And he had just knocked out one of the sport’s toughest competitors. So Malik and Mahjoob were optimistic because they huddled with their peers on Wednesday afternoon at one end of the cavernous tent that houses the JTCC’s indoor courts, where folding chairs were laid out on the gray clay around an inflatable screen playing the game.
Tiafoe, seeded 22nd, still had a difficult task against Rublev, seeded ninth. The tennis center crowd reflected the New York partisan atmosphere, gasping when a Rublev lob landed inches away and screaming when Tiafoe ventured onto the net to finish off the points with a deft volley – the same as that they had been on the receiving side. so many times in practice. Slowly, a confident Tiafoe took a lead. A member of staff told the younger ones in front of them to stand up and applaud so ESPN could send a reaction shot. When a returning Tiafoe flew past Rublev to seal the second set, they jumped to their feet.
JTCC Senior Director of Player Development Komi Oliver Akli, who coaches Tiafoe when he trains at JTCC, watched quietly from behind. He enthusiastically pointed to Tiafoe’s signs of progress. Akli had worked with Tiafoe at College Park just two days before the US Open, tinkering to improve his backhand – “There, see?” he said, like Tiafoe laced one on the line to earn a point.
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Akli, a star athlete from Togo who moved to the United States to coach tennis, met Tiafoe as a child and felt a connection to his Sierra Leonean family early on. Tiafoe’s success is something of a thesis statement for the JTCC, which alongside its paid tennis academy offers scholarships and runs several community outreach programs for the majority black and Hispanic cohorts in schools and community centers. District and Prince George’s – a rare investment in an industry that traditionally only caters to affluent families who can afford high-level tennis training.
In schools and centers served by JTCC, not all children have heard of Tiafoe, says Akli. He believes his name will grow from his run this year at the US Open and inspire more of Prince George’s youth.
“Most of them say, ‘Oh, we just heard his name,’ but they don’t know exactly who he is, what he has done for the community,” Akli said. “It’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
As Tiafoe rode to victory, patrons watching the game at the Riverdale bar grew increasingly restless. At a table across from Glass’s bar, Joe Clair and Denise Mitchell fidgeted in their seats. Between laughs, Clair joked – “The mortgage depends on it!”
Cheers erupted when Tiafoe finally won the match with a scorching ace. Glass looked behind him and shared a smile with Clair and Mitchell, strangers who all agreed County needed this win.
“It’s heart-warming, and we can brag about it now,” said Mitchell, a College Park councilwoman. “He’s from College Park.”
“Especially coming in the week when young people in Prince George’s County have been under curfew,” Clair said. (County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks announced Monday that Prince George’s would impose a month-long curfew on youths under the age of 17 after a spike in gun violence.) “Having a Prince George’s County youth in US Open quarter-finals? This is amazing. This is exactly what we need.
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After the match was over, JTCC staff quickly put away the folding chairs and rolled the tennis ball carts onto the courts. Within minutes, the echoes and thuds of tennis shots filled the tent, and Akli was back to work. But he couldn’t help but rave about his best student.
“It makes me feel like we’ve done something here,” Akli said. “It’s important for JTCC, it’s important for the county, it’s huge for the whole nation.”
He would send Tiafoe his congratulations after class, he said, but there were no plans to toast the victory yet. In a very open men’s draw, Akli believes Tiafoe can win it all. He will be back on Friday when Tiafoe takes on third-seeded Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz.
“We have to finish it,” Akli said. “And then we can celebrate.”
A previous version of this article described Akli as Tiafoe’s current coach. He coaches Tiafoe when he trains at JTCC. The article has been updated.
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