COLLEGE PARK, Md. — If you don’t know Frances Tiafoe’s story yet, you’ve got some catching up to do.
Since grabbing the tennis world’s attention by winning the prestigious Orange Bowl at age 15, the youngest ever to do so, he’s been labeled America’s next great tennis hope. But while his steady, measured rise over the past four years has landed him on the doorstep of stardom, his impact on the sport has the chance to reach far beyond simple championships.
Tiafoe’s parents, Alphina and Frances Sr., escaped civil war-torn Sierra Leone in the mid-90s and came to America to try to build a better life. In 1999, the year after Tiafoe and his twin brother Franklin were born, his father began work as a day laborer on what would become the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland, where his tireless work ethic would later earn him a full-time gig as the custodian, working endless days, sometimes sleeping in a makeshift room on site with the boys while Alphina worked nights.
While the JTCC was built with the purpose of nurturing young tennis players, it’s fair to say those who championed it never expected their most successful prodigy to emerge from that room. Now 19, Tiafoe is the center of gravity as he walks the halls, the reason for every turned head of a camper, or smiling handshake from a staffer or coach. It will always be home, but things have changed.
“I mean, it’s different,” said Tiafoe (pronounced tee-AH-foe). “All the people I used to talk to, when you’re younger, obviously you show respect, but it’s different. You talk to them man-to-man now, you hang out with them outside. Instead of them looking at you as a little kid — well, they’re always going to look at you as a little kid.”
One of those grown-ups is Frank Salazar, one of Tiafoe’s childhood coaches, who still works with him when he’s in town.
“He basically grew up here,” said Salazar. “I’ve known him since he was like…