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Franklin Tiafoe comes into his own as DeMatha’s top tennis player

DeMatha senior Franklin Tiafoe competed at last year’s Citi Open Wild Card Challenge at the College Park Tennis Club, where he grew up playing. (Photo courtesy of Jim Turner)
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Franklin Tiafoe arrived at DeMatha High in Hyattsville for the first time nearly three years ago on a hot, humid summer morning. He had just been admitted to the all-boys Catholic private school after spending his freshman year at neighboring Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt and was excited for the challenges and opportunities awaiting him.

After picking up his books, Tiafoe, a talented junior tennis player, visited the athletic department, where he was fitted for a jacket, along with shirts and pants sporting his new school’s name. Once Tiafoe put them on, Bob Larson, a family friend and mentor of Tiafoe who accompanied him that day, immediately noticed a difference. Despite the heat, Tiafoe later walked through the hallways at the College Park Tennis Club, where he trains, proudly wearing his DeMatha gear.

“He grew about three inches in stature,” said Larson, 71. “You could tell on his face, he was like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’”

At DeMatha, Tiafoe has found an environment that has helped him both mature in the classroom and improve on the tennis court while finding his own path in the sport. Tiafoe, whose twin brother, Frances, is a fast-rising professional player, has led the Stags at No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles since joining the team and is a favorite to take home a title at his final Washington Catholic Athletic Conference tournament, which starts this weekend.

“It really shaped me as a person going to DeMatha,” said Tiafoe, 18. “Anyone that plays athletics or does music or does whatever, it teaches them to work to the best of their abilities.”

Frances Tiafoe: An improbable tennis prodigy

Tiafoe and his brother, born minutes apart, grew up to the repetitive sounds of people playing tennis. Their father, Frances Sr., who emigrated from Sierra Leone in West Africa, worked at the College Park Tennis Club as a maintenance man after signing on as a day laborer in 1999, and the boys often stayed with Frances Sr. as he worked around the clock.

The twins began taking lessons at a young age, and Franklin recalls picking up a racket for the first time when he was just 3 years old.

“I remember just being small, hitting on the hitting wall a lot with my brother, running around talking to all the members,” he said. “It was a good life.”

But there was a time around age 10 when Tiafoe started to lose focus on tennis. A talkative and energetic young boy, he got in trouble at the center for pulling pranks, and his father punished him by not allowing him to play tennis for weeks at a time, Tiafoe said. It was during these few years that Frances began to develop some of the world-class skills that propelled him to the professional tennis circuit, said Frank Salazar, the boys’ coach at College Park.

But the time away from tennis allowed Franklin to realize how much the sport meant to him, and he rededicated his time to the court.

“When I got straightened out, I was back to playing tournaments all the time,” he said. “I think that experience just made the love of the game stronger for me, because I was away from it a little bit, so I appreciated it a little bit more than I did.”

Watching his brother succeed as a highly touted junior player now ranked No. 191 in the world on the pro tour, also inspired Tiafoe. The brothers talk daily; they share typical teenager conversations, but they also turn serious when it comes to tennis.

It’s a support system few high school tennis players have.

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“We’re really good friends,” Frances said. “He’s really supportive of me, and I give him advice when I can on his tennis. He pushes me, and I push him. . . . He keeps me grounded, he keeps me humble and he keeps me focused.”

Tiafoe spent his spring break with Frances at the U.S. Tennis Association training center in Boca Raton, Fla., hitting and training with the professionals. He plans on taking six months off after graduating from high school to train, travel and play tournaments with some of the best American players before making any decisions about college.

But, before that, Tiafoe is looking to claim his first WCAC title. He lost to the eventual No. 1 singles champion the past two years — in the final his sophomore year to current Virginia Tech player Freddy Mesmer of Gonzaga, and in the semifinals last spring to Gonzaga All-Met Dominick Perez. Tiafoe and DeMatha Coach Damon Austin, who credits Tiafoe with helping to bring immediate credibility to the Stags tennis program, are confident about his chances this time.

“This year I think is my year,” Tiafoe said. “I don’t think anyone is going to get in my way.”