How to spot a tennis prodigy

You might have seen it if you are a tennis fan. The commercial begins with a little boy of 10 or 11 sitting in a modest apartment watching Venus Williams on a tiny antique television. He is interrupted by a man tapping him on the shoulder.

“Hey Frances,” says the man, “what if a wall wasn't an obstacle but an opportunity?”

The apartment is melting away and now the boy and the man – presumably a trainer – are happily hitting beautiful looping groundstrokes against a wall. As they strike, the cute-faced boy gradually ages, eventually transforming into a regal, muscular adult with his head crowned by a now-familiar headband as he performs a sizzling ace and roars at the crowd. It's Frances Tiafoe, one of the most popular and recognizable faces in men's tennis, currently ranked No. 10 in the world and a contender for the US Open, which begins on Monday.

Of course, the young Tiafoes in the ad were the product of an audition and not the actual young Frances. But the producers did a good job finding someone who looked like the 11-year-old boy I met in 2009 while spending a few months writing about the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, a then-unknown Tennis training academy that had shockingly produced three boys in the top 20 junior tennis in the world. Finally, I accompanied their two best players, Denis Kudla and Mitchell Frank, to the French Open where they competed in the junior championships.

But here's the relevant part: During my coverage at the tennis center, I spent a day with a boy the coaches seemed to have an odd appreciation for. Kudla might actually make it to the pro tour, they said, adding, “But this boy will be better. This kid is special.”

I was amazed. He appeared to be an ordinary 11-year-old, a role model for the first child in the ad — only instead of wearing new, stylish tennis gear, he was wearing a well-worn Pikachu t-shirt. Frances was not particularly tall for his age and had no personality strengths of note that I could discern, other than an open and approachable disposition. I spent a morning with him in the attic above the tennis courts while he completed a geography course that was part of the in-house academic program. He wasn't grumpy like so many kids who were forced to focus on latitude and longitude while a strange adult peered over his shoulder. It was more of a slight confusion: “How did I end up here if I could play tennis?”

After class I met him. He was really good for his age. But I noticed that after hitting the ball, he didn't immediately spring back into position for the next shot – a mark of a serious player. And when I saw him play at a local tournament in a dingy gymnasium, he hit an older kid, but only by beating him to death. I couldn't understand why the coaching staff put so much emphasis on him.

A year later I returned to the tennis center and Frances, now 12, had replaced the moon ball with fearsome topspin groundstrokes that shot off the court and thudded into the back fence. By the time he was 15 – just four years after he left me so unimpressed – Tiafoe became the youngest player to win the Orange Bowl, the world's premier tournament for 18-year-olds, which previously featured Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were crowned.

As I examined more closely what the College Park pros had seen in Frances that I hadn't seen, I discovered that I had inadvertently been accompanied by an expert.

Kudla left College Park at the age of 18 and became the first Junior Tennis Champions Center graduate to break into the top 100 in men's tennis, ranking 53rd in the world in 2016. He knew better than most what combination of skill, dedication and hard work it took.

At the beginning of his professional career, Kudla returned to the tennis center for a visit, a victorious hero. Frances was 13 years old, still a few years away from his first junior title. When he saw Frances play, he was more than a little skeptical. “He had this weird technique, the weird forehand, I didn't think his tennis IQ was that high,” Kudla said.

He scored with Tiafoe and had the same sense of his potential as I did.

“I just never thought he would have the discipline to get in the top 100 — not from a fitness perspective, but from a decision perspective,” said Kudla. “Decisions on the pitch are so important and require so much work, so much teaching, so much learning. I didn't see him do that.

“But I also drew on the way I did it. I'm definitely a more exaggerated thinker than he is. He's a lot more natural, a lot more creative, his hands are a lot more God-given, so I was wrong about that too. I was definitely wrong about a lot of things about him.”

Tiafoe turned pro in 2016 and quickly became a fan favorite. He had an infectious gap-toothed grin and a touching background: the impoverished son of civil war refugees in Sierra Leone, he grew up in the tennis center where his father was a janitor and sometimes slept head to toe on a massage table with his twin brother, Franklin, as his Father worked a long time. He also had a performative flair and a winning disposition that came with his killer forehand. He was an avid and indiscriminate hugger at post-game handshakes, who obviously loved being on the pitch and sending the crowd into a frenzy with bold punches, punches and bicep flexes.

He was in the top 100 at 19, breaking the top 50 at 20, and hitting the top 30 at 21. No longer the shy little boy, he was 6'1″ and built like a linebacker, serving 135 miles per hour and not much slower with forehands. Even then, Kudla remained skeptical that Tiafoe had what it takes to make the top 10, and from 2019 to 2021, Tiafoe seemed to fuel those doubts. He tended to advance in games and then lose focus. In too many tournaments he lost too often in the first round against weaker opponents.

During that time, I hinted to the tennis center's executive director, Ray Benton, that Tiafoe's career may have peaked at age 21. That's no shame, I said. Getting into the top 30 of the highly competitive Pro Tour is almost a miracle. There are about 1,800 pro players in the ranked system, but only about the top 100 can make a living from competitive play alone. Benton himself once told me, “There are 11 Americans in the top 100. That basically means there are 11 jobs for Americans in the entire tennis world.” How bad are your chances there?”

Perhaps, I suspected, Frances had finally found his limit at a very low altitude.

Benton just smiled and said, “No.”

Really? I asked. How high did he think Frances could go?

“All the way up,” he said. “NO. 1.”

What about the boy Carlos Alcaraz? I said. He looks like he's been eating everyone else's lunch for a few decades. And who knows if Novak Djokovic's deal with the devil has an expiration date.

Benton shrugged. “Okay, top 10 then, by the least.”

As if on cue last summer, Tiafoe began to persevere in games where he was leading. He would shift into higher gear and even finish against some top 10 opponents. He managed an exciting and stadium-shattering run to the semi-finals of the US Open, where he narrowly lost to Alcaraz. Along with Taylor Fritz, he is one of two American men in the top 10 for the first time in more than a decade.

Which left me where I started – confused. How did Benton know that back then? And how did his coaches know that in the beginning?

In 2009, at the tennis center, I watched Vesa Ponkka, the tennis director, and coach Frank Salazar lead a horde of local kids through drills cleverly disguised as games at a “Free Fun Festival” at the academy. Some children twirled like ballerinas or waved their arms like birds when asked to walk a course between orange cones. But one girl sliced ​​and hopped through the obstacles like a cornerback. “Frank, look at this,” Ponkka said to Salazar. “See how she raises her knees, moves her arms in sync, and her head stays still?”

Ponkka knew that the kind of balance, focus, and poise in a young child was the best predictor of future athletic success—perhaps one day she could play on her high school team, or even in college. But what did he see in young Frances that transcended anything he saw in this girl or anyone else who ever walked those hard courts in College Park?

“We all realized that when he came here when he was 4 or 5, he just couldn't get enough tennis,” Ponkka told me recently. “He was always watching, always watching, and all the free time he had he was banging against the wall. It wasn't so much about his natural ability as it was about his absolutely incredible love of the game.”

Salazar recalled, “Other kids that age watched cartoons. Frances only watched the Tennis Channel. If you didn't want to talk about tennis all the time, you couldn't be his friend.”

Physically, Frances got off to a good start – his father, Frances Sr., was well over 6ft and a naturally athletic. “He never worked out, but he had this great six-pack,” Benton said of the father. But Ponkka insists Frances' genetic potential was secondary.

“In tennis, the mental and emotional are more important than the physical and that was Frances' unique talent. He moved well because he wanted it more than other kids, he really wanted to get the ball,” he said. “He loved everything about the game, the smell of the new tennis balls, the sound of the ball on the racquet.”

Misha Kouznetzov, who coached Frances in his teens, helped him with his homework and sometimes gave Frances' mother food money, says Frances' drive wasn't just about love. “You see,” he said, “the boy was poor. He had to get out of Hyattsville. He wanted to make a name for himself and start earning money for his family. So the hunger and cravings during the competition were always there. He was all in, he had no choice.”

In one match, even a practice match, “he fought like crazy,” Ponkka said. When he lost to older kids, he would push them into an immediate rematch. “There were days where he played five, six, seven games in a day because he wanted to finally beat the guy. He learned how to win.”

Indeed he did. At the end of July I met Frances in person for the first time in 14 years. He sat in a barber's chair in a service building adjacent to the Junior Tennis Champions Center courts, getting his hair and makeup done before filming a commercial for Cadillac, which had just signed him as a brand ambassador. His brand new black Escalade was right outside the door, one of the many perks of winning.

I reminded him of the afternoon I'd spent with him in the cramped classroom, and he politely pretended to remember. As always, his schedule was packed. When I spoke to him, he was surrounded – his agent, the producer, the beautician, all hovering around him like worker bees around the queen. So I got to the point and asked him the most relevant question: When? He Do you think he would make it as a pro?

“Oh, I always believed it,” he said. “Ever since I was 10 or 11, I had no doubt that I was going to be a pro. And I felt like that made the process very easy. I've only focused on one thing at a time and it showed in every game and tournament I've ever played.”

When the hair clipper buzzed and his agent took calls, I definitely got in the way, but I just needed to know one thing.

“How is your knowledge of geography these days?”

He beamed that patchy grin that has won so many fans. “Yeah, well, I've traveled around the world enough times now that I know where I am.”

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