Tiafoe’s run at the US Open is delighting old and new Prince George fans

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Little did Michael Glass Jr. know that Frances Tiafoe, the boastful 24-year-old tennis player who waves her forehand across the bar’s TV screen, hails from Hyattsville just like him. He was finishing work at a Riverdale bar on Wednesday afternoon when a man walked in and asked the bartender to move to the US Open. Someone from the area was playing.

A Prince Georgian? In the quarterfinals?

“We’ve got to put that on,” Glass said, and he watched, addicted, as the Marylander moved closer to a historic win — for Tiafoe and for the county he’d represented on the biggest stage in American tennis.

Glass rattled off a list of famous Prince George’s athletes. Kevin Durant. Michael Beasley. Now they have another – this time in tennis – after Tiafoe defeated Russia’s Andrey Rublev 7-6 (7-3) 7-6 (7-0) 6-4 to reach Friday’s semifinals.

“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 to see the tennis academy’s most famous alumnus.

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The JTCC was a home away from home for Tiafoe, the son of Sierra Leonean immigrants who, as a 5-year-old boy, got a vacancy at the JTCC’s beginner tennis clinics through his father’s work as the center’s caretaker. He played daily, ran to the adjacent pitch to emulate older players after his age group lessons were over and told his father at the age of 6 that he wanted to be the best player to leave the club.

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

In December 2013, at age 15, Tiafoe became the youngest player to win the Orange Bowl, the most prestigious international title for boys under the age of 18. A long climb up the ranks of professional tennis followed. Copies of the tennis star’s awards and newspaper articles now line the JTCC clubhouse Walls and the Tiafoe Bobbleheads center stocks.

But Tiafoe, as a professional player continues to use the JTCC as a base camp for training between tournaments, not bearing the complacency of its increasingly senior station. The athletes who train there say he feels like an older brother to them.

“He’s always joking,” said Ameera Malik, 18, of College Park. “You never see Frances angry. Most of the time, I’m the one who gets upset about a bad workout or whatever, and he comes and jokes with me.”

“He was very into the community,” said Cyrus Mahjoob, 16, of Rockville, who first met Tiafoe when he joined a game with Mahjoob’s youth class. Since then, they’ve been training together and giving it their all.

“I knew I wasn’t going to throw too many winners at him,” Mahjoob said, laughing.

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Tiafoe has been close – agonizingly 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. He has made the fourth round twice before. He first signaled on Monday that this year could be different as he upset second seed Rafael Nadal to reach Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

“My mother, she called me crying,” Malik said. “And I burst into tears too because of it Frances man.”

Kouznetsov, who now gives private tennis lessons in DC, was on the freeway when he caught a glimpse of his former student’s score on his cell phone. He took the next exit and ran into a Buffalo Wild Wings to see the end of the game.

“I was like, look, I need to see this in person,” he said.

No one doubted that Tiafoe would go far in the tournament. And he had just defeated one of the sport’s toughest competitors. So Malik and Mahjoob were optimistic like them huddled with their peers on Wednesday afternoon at one end of the cavernous tent that houses JTCC’s indoor courts, where folding chairs were arranged on the gray clay surrounding an inflatable screen on which the game was played.

Tiafoe, 22nd seeded, had a difficult task against ninth seeded Rublev. The crowd at the tennis center mirrored the partisan atmosphere in New York, gasping when a Rublev lob landed inches and cheering when Tiafoe ventured to the net to score with a skillful volley – the same ones she did on receiving end had had so many times in practice. Slowly, a confident Tiafoe gained a lead. A staffer told the younger kids up front to stand and cheer so ESPN could initiate a reaction shot. They jumped to their feet as a Tiafoe return flew past Rublev to seal the second set.

From behind, Komi Oliver Akli, senior director of player development at JTCC and current coach of Tiafoe, calmly watched the action. He excitedly pointed to signs of Tiafoe’s progress. Akli had worked with Tiafoe at College Park just two days before the US Open, tinkering to improve his backhand – “There you see?” he said as Tiafoe laced one on the line to win a point.

Akli, a top athlete from Togo who moved to the United States to coach tennis, met Tiafoe as a child and felt close ties to his Sierra Leonean family from an early age. Tiafoe’s success is a thesis statement of sorts for the JTCC, which, in addition to its paid tennis academy, offers scholarships and runs several community outreach programs for majority Black and Hispanic cohorts in schools and community centers throughout the district and in Prince George — a rare investment in one Industry that traditionally caters exclusively to the wealthy families who can afford tennis training at the highest level.

At the schools and centers that JTCC serves, not all children have heard of Tiafoe, Akli says. He believes his name will grow and inspire more of Prince George’s youth after his run at the US Open this year.

“Most of them say, ‘Oh, we just heard his name,’ but they don’t really know who he is, what he’s done for the community,” Akli said. “It keeps getting bigger.”

As Tiafoe neared victory, the patrons watching the game at the Riverdale bar became increasingly restless. At a table across from Glass, Joe Clair and Denise Mitchell shifted in their seats. Between laughter, Clair joked, “The mortgage depends on it!”

Cheers erupted when Tiafoe finally decided the match with a fiery ace. Glass looked behind him and shared a grin with Clair and Mitchell, strangers who all agreed the county needed this win.

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

“Especially the week that a curfew was imposed on Prince George’s County youth,” Clair said. (County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks announced Monday that Prince George’s would be enforcing a month-long curfew for youth under the age of 17 following a spike in gun violence.) “Having a Prince George’s County youth in the quarterfinals of the US Open? That’s great. That is exactly what we need.”

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After the game ended, JTCC staff quickly cleared away the folding chairs and rolled carts of tennis balls back onto the courts. Within minutes, the echoes and bangs of tennis courts filled the tent, and Akli was back to work. But he couldn’t stop gushing about his best student.

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

He would send his congratulations to Tiafoe after class, he said, but there are no plans to toast the win just yet. Akli believes Tiafoe can win anything in a men’s open draw. He will be back on Friday when Tiafoe meets third-placed Carlos Alcaraz of Spain.

“We must end it,” Akli said. “And then we can celebrate.”

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