“I was not expecting this this week, especially with how the year started and everything.”
Frances Tiafoe had suffered consecutive first-round losses at Brisbane, the Australian Open and the Newport Beach Challenger before finally gaining some traction with a first ATP quarterfinal appearance at the inaugural New York Open.
Victory at Delray Beach, completed with a pair of aces in a 6-1 6-4 win over Peter Gojowczyk in the final, followed in his next event.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s obviously a dream to win your first title. Now I got that off my back so that feels pretty good, so early in my career. It’s an amazing feeling and I just hope I can get many more as I go along,” the American said.
If his first career title is an indicator, multiple career wins are a certainty.
Beating top-10 ranked Juan Martin del Potro most clearly highlighted the composure that complements Tiafoe’s physical weapons.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) February 25, 2018
The Argentine, who was the No.2 seed at Delray Beach, is the 20-year-old’s childhood idol, as he related in an interview with the ATP World Tour early in 2017.
“Del Potro was the first player to sign a ball for me, so that meant a lot to me. He’s always going to be one of my biggest idols,” said Tiafoe.
“I really wanted that win to make a statement. I’ve had a tonne of tough losses against top guys.”
Not that Tiafoe could be considered “behind” in his development – among the six top-200 American men born in 1998, he was the first to claim an ATP title, continuing the “keep-ahead-of-his-class” mentality that has long shaped his approach to tennis.
The son of Sierra Leone immigrants Frances Snr and Alphina, Frances and his twin brother Franklin were introduced to the game through his father’s employment at College Park in Maryland. Having helped in the construction of the now-famous centre, Frances Snr later became Head of Maintenance.
The twins often accompanied their father to work – at times even sleeping on a massage table at the club – and Frances was eventually accepted into the club’s junior development programs.
Still, it was far from an easy path for the talented Tiafoe, as he detailed in a Players’ Tribune feature ahead of the 2017 US Open. “Even after I got accepted into the clinics, I played with hand-me-down racquets and gear from my wealthier peers, or used demo racquets the club supplied,” the teenager wrote.
“I like to tell everybody that I didn’t choose tennis, tennis chose me — that I was built to play this sport — but that didn’t make it any easier for me. When I told people that I wanted to grow up to be a tennis player, they laughed at me.”
And yet the determined young competitor persisted, driven partly by the knowledge that other young players at College Park would never face the challenges he’d experienced.
“What I could control though was how hard I worked,” Tiafoe continued. “I knew I had an ability to help my family and my community in a way that my peers at the academy couldn’t. No matter what they ended up doing after tennis, they were going to be fine. For me, there was so much more at stake.
“Tennis was my way out.”
If there was a flipside to those difficult development years for Tiafoe, it was the rewards that would eventually follow his breakthrough. Fiercely loyal to his home city, the American had long hoped for his first title to come in Washington.
But with father Frances Snr watching on, Tiafoe couldn’t have been more delighted when the breakthrough came some 1600kms away in Florida.
Following an emotional post-final celebration with his father, the younger Tiafoe paid tribute to the qualities that had helped make his victory possible.
“He’s ecstatic. He’s done so much for me and my brother and just the whole family in general. Everything I’m doing now is returning the favour,” said Tiafoe.
“I’m just really happy about the way I’m playing, how I’ve grown as a person, because that’s what matters the most, and how humble I’ve stayed throughout the process. And I think all those traits have been from him.”
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