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Maryland Native Frances Tiafoe Continues To Move Up ATP Rankings

March 27, 2017
It has been 14 years since Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open, the last American man to win a grand slam singles title. 

Since then, every talented American player has been burdened with the hope that they might be the one to finally end this run of American men's tennis futility. None have come close. No American has even made a slam final since Roddick lost his fourth to Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2009. Until Sam Querrey reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon last year, no American had even reached the round of eight at a slam since Roddick and John Isner at the 2011 U.S. Open. 

Maryland native Frances Tiafoe has dealt with this burden since 2013 ... when he was just 15. Tiafoe won the prestigious Junior Orange Bowl International Tennis Championship, an event won previously by grand slam champions like Roddick, Federer, Jim Courier, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. Now 19, Tiafoe's accomplishments as a professional have done nothing to scare American fans away from the dream that he could be the one to bring American men's tennis out of the darkest period in its history. 

At the ATP Miami Open March 25, Tiafoe forced Federer to a first-set tiebreak and broke him in the second set before ultimately falling. (Federer said of Tiafoe after the match, "I think he's going to be really good.") Earlier in the month, he took the second set from former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro and came up just shy of pulling off the upset in a third-set tiebreak. 

Most importantly, in January, Tiafoe made it through to the main draw of the 2017 Australian Open via qualifying and defeated Russian Mikhail Kukushkin in the first round. It was his first victory in the main draw of a grand slam in his career. For Tiafoe, it was a significant marking point in a career that is still very young. 

"I think it was huge," Tiafoe told PressBox. "You dream about playing in grand slams, and winning a match meant a lot, especially going through qualifying and everything. It gave me a lot of confidence that I can play with these guys and really know that this is my level. I think it really helped me. I definitely did work in the offseason for it, so I'm glad it paid off then. Now I'm on my way, onwards and upwards."

Tiafoe's background made the win so much more significant than a single victory against the 76th-ranked player in the world. Born in College Park, Md., Tiafoe is the son of an immigrant from Sierra Leone who was a day laborer during the construction of the Junior Tennis Champions Center. His father would later work maintenance at the JTCC, where the family occasionally lived due to economic struggle. The significant time Tiafoe spent around the JTCC led to a love of the sport. 

But while he rose as a junior, his parents were unable to witness much of his success because they could not afford to travel to watch the matches. Tiafoe has proudly been able to help change that now as a young adult. 

"I'll fly them out sometimes," Tiafoe said. "That's one of the main reasons I want to be great: I want to give my family the life they deserve. All of the sacrifices they made for me and my twin brother, that's what motivated me to be great. And for me to live the life that, when I'm done tennis, I can be comfortable, raise kids and live a good life."

While a good starting point, Tiafoe said the victory in Melbourne, Australia, wasn't really one of the goals he had set for himself after turning pro in 2015. 

"Winning a grand slam match wasn't something I was thinking about," Tiafoe said. "I had a couple of chances to do it when I was 18. I never really put a timetable on that. Rankings, I did."

And what are those ranking goals? 

"I've pretty much hit them," Tiafoe said. "Last year I wanted to end up top 100; I missed it by a little bit, but I hit 100 towards the end of the season. The year before -- when I was 17 -- it was cracking the top 200, and I ended [ranked] 170, so I was good. And this year, I want to end in the top 50."

And while goalsetting has been successful so far, the Prince George's County native doesn't obsess over them. 

"I'd like for this to happen," Tiafoe said. "If I hit it, I'm pushing for more, but I'm just going to work every day and focus on getting better. The key is I keep very loose."

Now living in Florida in order to further his career, it was recently announced Tiafoe would return to the area this summer to play with the World Team Tennis (WTT) Washington Kastles. With his family (including twin brother Franklin) still living in the area, the return is very meaningful. 

"I love D.C.," Tiafoe said. "It's great, it's always fun. I play the D.C. tournament [the ATP Citi Open] every year, so I always go back to D.C. D.C.'s great, there's no place like it. I still try to go back whenever I can, whenever it fits in the schedule."

Can Tiafoe ultimately live up to the incredible hype that surrounds him? Baltimore native and International Tennis Hall of Famer Pam Shriver has several reasons to believe he could. 

"He's an extraordinary athlete, he moves beautifully, I think he has the power," Shriver told Glenn Clark Radio in January. "He has some technique issues -- that unsettles me a little bit. But it's always going to come down to the heart and whether or not he has that big-belief feeling. He has the power, and he has the speed. The intangibles you don't find out about until a little bit later." 

For his part, Tiafoe has attempted to block out the overwhelming surrounding pressure. 

"I don't really think that much of it," Tiafoe said. "I'm mainly focused on getting better. I'm happy that people think I have the opportunity to be great, but I'm not going to be great unless I keep doing the work, so I'm definitely doing that."

But does he believe he's capable of becoming the next great American tennis player?

"I believe I can do a lot of good things -- a lot of great things -- but again, there's a lot of work ahead that has to be done for that to happen," Tiafoe said. "I've played matches that have shown I can play [at a high level]."