Tiafoe’s U.S. Open run delights Prince George’s fans old and new

Michael Glass Jr. had no concept that Frances Tiafoe, the swaggering 24-year-old tennis participant belting forehands throughout the bar’s TV display, was from Hyattsville, identical to him. He was ending work at a Riverdale bar Wednesday afternoon when a person got here in and requested the bartender to flip to the U.S. Open. Someone native was taking part in.

A Prince Georgian? In the quarterfinals?

“We’ve got to put that on,” Glass mentioned, and he watched, hooked, because the Marylander closed in on a historic win — for Tiafoe, and for the county he’d represented on American tennis’s largest stage.

Glass rattled off a listing of well-known Prince George’s athletes. Kevin Durant. Michael Beasley. Now, they’ve one other one — this time in tennis — after Tiafoe beat Russian Andrey Rublev, 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-0), 6-4, to advance to Friday’s semifinals.

“He’s exemplifying the standard of what Prince George’s County is,” Glass mentioned.

Tiafoe already has his fans within the county the place he was born and raised. In College Park, dozens of gamers gathered on the Junior Tennis Champions Center to observe the tennis academy’s most well-known alumnus.

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The JTCC was a second house for Tiafoe, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone who as a 5-year-old boy acquired a free spot in JTCC’s newbie tennis clinics by his father’s work as the middle’s upkeep man. He performed every day, operating over to the adjoining court docket to imitate older gamers after his age-group classes completed, and advised his dad by age 6 that he needed to be the most effective participant to go away the membership.

“There was so much desire and drive and hunger,” mentioned Misha Kouznetsov, Tiafoe’s former coach.

In December 2013, Tiafoe turned the youngest participant at 15 to win the Orange Bowl, probably the most prestigious worldwide title for boys 18-and-under. An extended climb up the ranks {of professional} tennis adopted. Now, copies of the tennis star’s awards and newspaper articles line the JTCC clubhouse partitions, and the middle shares Tiafoe bobbleheads.

But Tiafoe, who as an expert participant continues to make use of the JTCC as a base camp for coaching between tournaments, doesn’t carry the self-importance of his more and more excessive station. The athletes who practice there say he seems like an older brother to them.

“He’s always joking around,” mentioned Ameera Malik, 18, from College Park. “You never see Frances mad, ever. Most of the time, I’m the one who’s upset because of a bad practice or whatever, and he’ll come and joke with me.”

“He was really into the community,” mentioned Cyrus Mahjoob, 16, of Rockville, who first met Tiafoe when he joined a recreation with Mahjoob’s youth class. Since then, they’ve practiced collectively and rallied at full pace.

“I knew I wouldn’t be hitting too many winners on him,” Mahjoob mentioned, laughing.

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Tiafoe has come shut — agonizingly shut — to a breakout second on the U.S. Open in previous years. In 2017, he misplaced to Roger Federer in 5 units in a titanic first spherical conflict. Twice earlier than, he’s made the fourth spherical. He first signaled that this 12 months may be totally different on Monday, when he upset second seed Rafael Nadal to achieve Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

“My mom, she called me crying,” Malik mentioned. “And I teared up too because it’s like, Frances, man.”

Kouznetsov, who now coaches non-public tennis classes in D.C., was on the freeway when he caught a glimpse of his former pupil’s rating on his cellphone. He took the subsequent exit and ran right into a Buffalo Wild Wings to observe the tip of the match.

“I was like, look, I gotta see this in person,” he mentioned.

No one doubted Tiafoe might go far within the event. And he’d simply taken out one of many sport’s hardest opponents. So Malik and Mahjoob have been optimistic as they huddled with their friends Wednesday afternoon at one finish of the cavernous tent that homes JTCC’s indoor courts, the place folding chairs have been organized on the grey clay round an inflatable display taking part in the match.

Tiafoe, seeded twenty second, nonetheless had a troublesome task towards the ninth-seeded Rublev. The tennis middle crowd mirrored the partisan environment in New York, gasping when a Rublev lob landed in by inches and whooping when Tiafoe ventured to the online to complete factors with a deft volley — the identical as those they’d been on the receiving finish of so many occasions in follow. Slowly, a assured Tiafoe eked out a lead. A workers member advised the youthful children in entrance to face up and cheer so ESPN might pipe in a response shot. When a Tiafoe return flew previous Rublev to seal the second set, they leaped to their toes.

Watching quietly from the again was Komi Oliver Akli, JTCC’s senior director of participant growth and Tiafoe’s present coach. He pointed excitedly to indicators of Tiafoe’s progress. Akli had labored with Tiafoe in College Park simply two days earlier than the U.S. Open, tinkering to enhance his backhand — “There, see?” he mentioned, as Tiafoe laced one down the road to win a degree.

Akli, a star athlete from Togo who moved to the United States to teach tennis, met Tiafoe when he was a child and felt a bond along with his Sierra Leonean household from the beginning. Tiafoe’s success is a thesis assertion of kinds for the JTCC, which alongside its paid tennis academy presents scholarships and runs a number of neighborhood outreach packages for majority-Black and Hispanic cohorts in colleges and neighborhood facilities throughout the District and Prince George’s — a uncommon funding in an business that historically caters solely to the rich households who can afford top-level tennis coaching.

At the faculties and facilities JTCC serves, not all the youngsters have heard of Tiafoe, Akli says. He thinks his title will Grow after his run this 12 months on the U.S. Open, and encourage extra Prince George’s youth.

“Most of them say, ‘Oh, we’ve just heard his name,’ but they don’t know exactly who he is, what he’s done for the community,” Akli mentioned. “This is going to get bigger and bigger.”

As Tiafoe inched towards victory, the patrons watching the sport on the Riverdale bar grew extra stressed. At a desk throughout the bar from Glass, Joe Clair and Denise Mitchell fidgeted of their seats. Between laughs, Clair joked — “The mortgage is riding on this!”

Cheers broke out when Tiafoe lastly clinched the match with a searing ace. Glass appeared behind him and shared a smile with Clair and Mitchell, strangers who all agreed: the county wanted this win.

“It’s heartwarming and we can brag now,” mentioned Mitchell, a College Park metropolis councilwoman. “He’s from College Park.”

“Especially coming in the week where the youth of Prince George’s County have been put on a curfew,” Clair mentioned. (County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks introduced Monday that Prince George’s would implement a month-long curfew on youth below 17 after a spike in gun violence.) “To have a youth from Prince George’s County in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open? This is amazing. This is exactly what we need.”

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After the match ended, JTCC workers shortly put away the folding chairs and rolled carts of tennis balls again onto the courts. Within minutes, the echoes and thumps of tennis strokes crammed the tent, and Akli went again to work. But he couldn’t cease from gushing about his greatest pupil.

“It makes me feel like we did something here,” Akli mentioned. “This is big for JTCC, this is big for the county, it’s huge for the whole nation.”

He’d textual content Tiafoe his congratulations after class, he mentioned, however there have been no plans to toast the victory but. In a wide-open males’s draw, Akli thinks Tiafoe can win all of it. He’ll be again to observe on Friday when Tiafoe faces third-seeded Carlos Alcaraz of Spain.

“We’ve got to finish it,” Akli mentioned. “And then we can celebrate.”

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