By Randy Walker
VERO BEACH, Fla. — It’s not every day that Sports Illustrated and the Washington Post focus their journalistic endeavors on the sleepy Florida coastal paradise of Vero Beach and its $10,000 USTA Futures level tennis tournament. While the event – the SorensenRealEstate.com Tennis Classic – is among the most successful Futures events in the USA – now in its 20th year – the focus of this media interest is entirely 16-year-old Francis Tiafoe, perhaps the brightest future hope for American men’s tennis.
Tiafoe became a lightning rod for attention in American tennis circles when he became the youngest player to win the boys’ 18 title Orange Bowl last December as a 15-year-old, joining a list of champions at the 67-year-old international event headlined by Roger Federer, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier. Add in the fact that he has an incredible story of being the son of immigrants from war-torn Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa and that he picked up the sport while his father worked as a maintenance person at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. (Read more in this New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/24/sports/tennis/francis-tiafoe-top-ranked-junior-grew-up-at-tennis-center-and-it-shows.html?_r=0) With a current world junior ranking of No. 2, Tiafoe is now stepping up onto the next rung of the ladder of competitive tennis on the “Futures” tour – the lowest level of professional tennis.
“It’s definitely tougher. You have to come in with a different mentality,” Tiafoe said of playing pro-level tennis after his 6-4, 6-2 second-round loss in Vero Beach to Gregory Ouellette, a 27-year-old former All-American at the University of Florida, ranked No. 592. “Here, they don’t really care if you are good junior. They don’t care who you are. They want to win the match. It’s completely different. In the juniors, I‘m pretty well respected and I can win matches off my name. Here, you have you work for every match and every point. It’s not easy. I really need to get used to this level.”
“It’s good for Francis to be here and play some matches against these guys maybe lose a few matches and stay humble and keep on learning and getting better,” said Misha Kouznetsov, Tiafoe’s coach from the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, a USTA Regional Training Center for High Performance. “Here you always have to hold serve and you have to always be aggressive. You cannot have mental breakdowns. You have to stay right on it. In juniors, you can get always with a lot of stuff.”
Next for Tiafoe is continued introductions into pro tennis on the USTA Pro Circuit and similar-level ITF Futures events in Spain before competing at the French Open juniors and junior Wimbledon. Main draw or qualifying wild cards into ATP events in Newport, R.I., Atlanta and Washington, DC could materialize in July. Tiafoe will also compete at the USTA National Boys’ 18 Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he will hope to earn the automatic wild card entry into the US Open that is awarded to the winner.
Ranked No. 1,296 in the ATP rankings this week, Tiafoe is a high school sophomore – home-schooled working with three different teachers, mainly over Skype, as well as with other tutors. In addition to practicing and improving his tennis skills and technique, Kouznetsov said he works on tennis specific track work and improving his fitness and endurance.
When asked in Vero Beach what his goals were for the rest of the year, Tiafoe was succinct and clear on what he wanted to achieve, a sign of a someone bound for future success.
“The goal is to win one of the Slams this year in the juniors,” Tiafoe said. “By January of next year, I want to be 400 or 300 in the world in the ATP rankings. I want to go into the pros next year with a pretty high ranking and see if I am going to go to school or not.”
Tiafoe said that his final tournament as a junior player will be the U.S. Open junior championships in September before he will focus entirely on playing for ATP ranking points to help determine whether he will turn professional or attend college.
“I want to turn pro,” Tiafoe said when asked if he was leaning more towards college or turning professional, “but you never know what will happen.”