In College Park, players want to be the next Tiafoe and they go wild watching him

At College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center, they knew Frances Tiafoe had what it took to beat Rafael Nadal – and they believe he can go further.

Tennis fans know that Hyattsville, Maryland native Frances Tiafoe was on the verge of exploding in the sport, and He appears to have broken through on Monday with his upset win over Rafael Nadal at the US Open. But at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center, it wasn’t so surprising — “it was a matter of ‘when’.”

So said Robin Montgomery, 18, of Northwest DC, as she walked onto the pitch for practice Tuesday morning. Her own professional career is just beginning and she said Tiafoe is like an older brother to her.

“To see him achieve something that big is obviously inspirational to me and the younger kids who grew up here – and it’s just a huge achievement and we’re so proud of him,” she said. “Since coming here, he’s someone I look up to and we’ve become closer over the years.”

Montgomery said most tennis players are “frankly, kind of like me — very serious on the court, no kidding.” But Tiafoe is “funny and very generous,” she said, adding, “I like how he engages the crowd, brings jokes to the pitch. I think it’s good for the sport.”

“Off the pitch, he’s just a very friendly person,” she added. “He just likes to have fun and makes everyone smile. Everyone sees him smile. Good energy.”

“I knew he had what it takes,” she said.

Montgomery won the singles and doubles competitions at the Girls US Open last year and said Tiafoe will occasionally offer some advice when she plays professional events on a full-time basis. It was tennis that initially connected them, but off the court they tend to talk about anything but tennis.

“If anything, we just fool around with each other and don’t get too serious that often,” she said. “Tennis is a strenuous sport. … Whenever I hang out with him, we try to make sure we’re just having fun and just being chilled.”

It’s different when he speaks to his former coach Oliver Akli, who said he worked with Tiafoe at College Park just before the tournament started and spoke to him on Sunday night.

“I told him, ‘Look, Nadal is an incredible player. But look at his age, look at your age. You have to be more physical with him,’” Akli said.

Now that he’s beaten the legend, Akli said: “The only thing I want from him is for him to keep going – not relax and ‘I only beat Nadal; I have to relax.’ No no no. You always want to keep going. Let everyone know I’m ready this year.”

He said Tiafoe, one of the more charismatic and popular players in tennis, plays with more maturity on the court after maturing from it.

“You can tell straight away that he believes in his game – he knows his game; he knows what he has to do at the moment,” said Akli. “At this high level you’re out as soon as you lose focus a little bit. He has great confidence now. He’s ready for anyone.”

His success also inspires the teenagers who train in hopes of following Tiafoe into the professional world. Stefan Regalia and Cyrus Mahjoob are both DMV natives who train at the JTCC and have practiced with Tiafoe.

“He’s always been a pretty unreal player,” Mahjoob said. “I knew he was a sick player. I saw him at work recently. He made an effort.”

Mahjoob said he recently spent about two hours hitting back and forth with Tiafoe, “and my forearm ended up dying,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. He’s doing a great job, bringing the energy and making sure everyone on the pitch is giving everything they can.”

Regalia said it was “insanely difficult” to play with Tiafoe. He praised the power and spin Tiafoe can impart to balls, even when hitting casually.

“It’s never easy to bat with him, but it’s always a great time,” he said. “It’s always very good for me and I hope it’s good for him.”

Regalia said yesterday’s Monday game was all that everyone in the classroom talked about.

“I watched the whole game. It was incredible,” he said. “It’s great for the center and it’s great for him. … I hope it really puts us more on the map.”

Everyone agreed that Tiafoe has what it takes to win his first Grand Slam trophy.

“The way he’s playing right now, he’s got the level,” Regalia said.

“I think he could make it to the end,” said Mahjoob. “If he just snaps, he could go all the way.”

Montgomery agreed, adding, “Obviously it’s game after game. That’s the main thing if I were going to tell him something.”

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