Join Robert Davis on his tennis travels around the world and get to know the people who are making things happen in the world of tennis.
ROBERT DAVIS > POST
FRANCES TIAFOE: LEARNING FROM THE BEST
ROLAND GARROS 2015 FEATURE
In learning from the best, Frances Tiafoe continues to educate himself as a tennis player. Today, the 17-year-old American makes his Grand Slam championship debut at Roland Garros.
At an age when most kids have traded the pacifier for a rattle, Frances Tiafoe is sitting courtside, racquet in his hand watching coach Frank Salazar teach tennis.
“Frances would have been about three or four years old back then,” remembers Salazar, the Senior Director at the Junior Training Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. “He would sit on the bench, feet dangling and watch me train Dennis [Kudla], Mitchell [Frank] and Junior [Ore] never taking his eyes off what they were doing. Then, he would try and mimic them with his racquet.”
By all accounts, the young Tiafoe was something of a court rat. If he was not watching the older boys playing, he could be found out on the back courts playing mini tennis or hitting against the wall.
“Frances probably accumulated more court time over the years at the center than all the other kids combined,” claims Salazar. “I believe that tennis came naturally to him because he felt comfortable with the environment he was in. Starting so young, with a racquet in his hand, he developed a strong skill set and a very high tennis I.Q. He would play from sunrise until sunset. Training would be over and he would still play. He was always experimenting against the wall and trying to learn the different shots to master.”
By now the basics of Tiafoe’s story are well known. His father and mother emigrated from Sierra Leone. Frances Sr. worked on a construction project and later as head of maintenance at the Junior Tennis Champion Center in College Park, Maryland. Mother, Alphina, was a nurse. Much of the week, but not all the time, Frances and twin brother, Franklin, lived out of the tennis center maintenance room as their father was often needed around the clock.
“His tennis clothes were rationed out based on need”
Tiafoe’s story is an excellent case study of what happens when ability and desire meets opportunity. But talented kids who have wasted opportunities are all too common in the United States of America.
The how and why of how the Tiafoe family got it right is a testament to their trust in the unshakeable ethos by the senior staff at the JTCC where ‘nothing is given, unless it is earned’. The message at the JTCC is loud and clear; effort and character are what matters most, not results. Under the umbrella of the JTCC, Frances Tiafoe Jr. shined.
“First, and above of all, he is a great kid who has this great smile,” says Vesa Ponkka, the Senior Director of Tennis at the JTCC. “People around the center felt that here was a kid who has a need, but just as importantly, was willing to work for whatever help he got. When Frances has to give a thank you speech someday it will probably sound like he is reading from a telephone book. A lot of people believed in him and helped him: teachers, tutors and members of the center. I believe that says a lot about the kind of kid Frances is that so many people were willing to lend him a hand.”
Chuck Kriese served as Director of Competition at the JTCC and he saw Tiafoe every day for over three years.
“A lot of the credit for Frances goes to Vesa Ponkka and Frank Salazar,” Kriese states. “Vesa showed a masterful management of a special kid. There were so many little things that he did like not allowing Frances to have all his sponsor clothes at one time. His tennis clothes were rationed out based on need, the shoes had to have holes in the soles and the shirts faded. Vesa molded Frances’s will without breaking his spirit. And Frank (Salazar) instilled the meat and potatoes fundamentals into Frances’s game and the warrior spirit. A bit like what Dean Smith did with Michael Jordan. Yes, other coaches were also important. Mischa Kouznetzov put a lot of heart and time into Frances and was a great mentor.”
“I will always be grateful to so many persons at the JTCC,” Tiafoe tells ATPWorldTour.com. “And to Mischa. He helped me in so many ways when I was growing up.”
Still, for all the fundamentals, help and all the managerial parameters, it was what Tiafoe did when he was unsupervised that contributed too. The staff at JTCC believe that it was all the make-up games, mini tennis and hitting against the wall that allowed Tiafoe to develop his ability to read the game.
“Frances had just as many hours of unstructured hitting as he did with supervised drills,” says Ponkka. “You could put Frances on the back courts with any of the kids regardless of their ability or age and he would go with a smile. If he were left alone he might change the drill and create his own game where score was kept, but he gave the same effort with whoever he played with.”
“He was the king of those kid games that were first fun and second where he could use his ability to see angles and gaps,” says Kriese. “Frances Tiafoe is the ultimate gamer.
“He [Tiafoe] learned to construct points. He sees the court like a chessboard. He plays the point three or four moves ahead of his opponent. In America, probably because kids grow up on hard courts, ball striking and brute force will take them to a certain level and you can bang your way out of trouble. But Frances is different, he reads the game. From an early age he has always been a thinker first, a striker second.
“Frances was always trying to bail on the stretching and fitness.
“There was this kid at the center, Yancy Dennis. He and Frances were best friends growing up. They were always together and I don’t know how many sets they played against each other over the years. Yancy was another contributing factor to Frances’s success because he was always nudging Frances to do the next right thing.”
Nathan Thompson was one of the original kids at the JTCC when it opened its doors in 1999. A native of Baltimore he would often go back there to train when he was not on the tennis tour. Thompson earned the nickname, ‘Maximus’, from his peers because of his physique. Later, he would travel as a coach with Tiafoe.
“I took him to a few low level ITF junior tournaments when he was younger,” recalls Thompson. “Frances was always trying to bail on the stretching and fitness. He was a bit of a social butterfly back then and if it was not fun, he was not up for it. He was a real sanguine personality. Maybe even super-sanguine. Once, we were in Florida when he was like 13 years old, he gave me some lip and I had to get in his kitchen and jack him up a bit. I was expecting him to back down and say, ‘Sorry, coach’. But no, he bowed up, got real quiet and snarled. I was like, ‘Damn, little dude is about to go feral.’ Fearless, that is what I remember most about Frances Tiafoe.”
“The kid has a tool box loaded with intangibles,” claims Ponkka. “But the first thing that comes to mind is that Frances is fearless beyond control.”
In Australia, they would say that Tiafoe has a bit of the mongrel in him. They said the same about Lleyton Hewitt.
According to Salazar, there were a couple of defining moments in Tiafoe’s junior development that have served him well today.
“After he won La Petit As de Tarbs [in 2012] it was clear that he needed to change his forehand to improve and be able to play at a higher level,” says Salazar. “He bought into it and made a change. He was pulled out of tournaments for four months to change his swing path and make a huge technical change. His game blossomed and began to take off over time. Another major change was after losing in the 2014 US Open junior semi-finals was his serve. He knew his serve wouldn’t hold up to playing the best players in the world. We totally reconstructed his serve and took him out of tournaments for three-and-a-half months. Again, he bought into the change.”
Tiafoe’s birth certificate states he is 17 years old and technically, still a boy. But take a good look at his body in the locker room and you will see that he packs a pair of man-sized shoulders that looks like he has been rocking a jackhammer instead of a tennis racquet. His torso is rock hard up front and deep cut in the back, while his glutes are pronounced and look like they have been grafted off a stud racehorse. No doubt Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ would nod in approval.
Legendary strength and conditioning coach, Pat Etcheberry, has been leading the team regarding Tiafoe’s physical development for the last couple of years.
“He [Tiafoe] is someone who you need to tell him what to do,” says Etcheberry. “But Pete [Sampras] and Andre [Agassi] were the same breed. Everything that I have asked him to do, he does, but you have to be right there. I tell Frances, ‘If you like winning, then do this and if you like losing, then don’t do this’. He does not have to be told twice, but he does need someone there. Basically, if you sit down with Frances and explain to him what it takes, he will do it.”
As Tiafoe’s physique began to develop so did his ball striking get bigger, heavier and full of spin. American tennis is used to big forehands; [Jimmy] Arias, [Aaron] Krickstein, [Andre] Agassi, [Andy] Roddick and Jack Sock all come to mind. Tiafoe’s drive is not that far behind. He has a windmill wind-up which looks more like a roundhouse right than a tennis stroke. And when he gets his feet set in a semi-open stance he can back a man to the bushes. However, and this is where it gets interesting, Tiafoe has the ability to throttle down and throw out an off-speed inside-out knuckle ball which barely clears the net whilst creating a shocking angle. At first glance it looks like a mis-hit, but make no mistake, that stroke is by design. It is Tiafoe’s joker in the deck.
Tiafoe gets a lot of pop out of a little effort on his serve. He uses the old Ed Krass B.E.S.T (Biomechanically Efficient Service Technique) service motion much like Jay Berger, Roddick and Gael Monfils. It is a technique that Krass designed back in the late 1980s. Simply, the hands do not drop like a pendulum, but rather the arm lifts while the palm stays down much like a quarterback throwing a football. It is a simple technique. However, in order to get big power, the player needs to be a gifted athlete.
“If you sit down with Frances and explain to him what it takes, he will do it.”
This past spring, the USTA dangled a carrot for the American tennis player that had the best combined results in the US clay-court circuit of ATP Challenger Tour events in Sarasota, Savannah and Tallahassee. The prize was a main draw wild card into 2015 Roland Garros. This was all the opportunity that Tiafoe needed. He had to work hard for it and in the end he earned his spot in the draw. Hard work is something that the senior staff of the JTCC in College Park, Maryland had instilled in him since day one.
It is late in the day on centre court at the ATP Nice Cote d’Azur and John Isner is locked into a second round battle with Steve Johnson. Cutting a lonely figure in the front row of the south side stands is Tiafoe sitting with his elbows propped on his knees and his chin resting on his palms. It is not known what thoughts are passing in the young man’s mind, but he appears lost in thought. A lot has changed in Tiafoe’s life lately. A deal with JayZ’s RocNation Sports Agency and a new cast of coaches to name a few. However, one thing that remains the same is that Tiafoe is still courtside watching the older boys play tennis.