It is a list of tennis royalty, the roster of players who have won the Orange Bowl 18-and-under boys’ title: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl in the 1970s; Jim Courier in the 1980s; Andy Roddick and Roger Federer in the 1990s.
Sunday in Plantation, Fla., Francis Tiafoe of College Park claimed his place among them in historic fashion, becoming, at 15, the youngest boys’ singles champion in the tournament that serves as the year-end world championship in junior tennis.
Tiafoe’s 7-6 (7-3), 0-6, 6-3 victory over fellow American Stefan Kozlov was a triumph on multiple levels, adding to his fast-rising reputation as a dogged competitor who bears watching.
“It’s unbelievable,” Tiafoe said by telephone before boarding the flight back to Washington following his victory. “To be one of the winners of this tournament is something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
His achievement also burnishes the reputation of College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center, where he has trained since he was old enough to hold a racket. Tiafoe’s father was formerly the maintenance manager at the complex, which has drawn national and international notice for producing young touring pros like Denis Kudla and scores of Division I scholarship players.
“Francis was basically born there,” said Tiafoe’s coach, Frank Salazar, who accompanied him to the Orange Bowl. “He was kind of born into tennis and never really played any other sport at all. Ever since he could walk, he has had a tennis racket in his hand. And he has probably seen more tennis than a lot of kids who have gone through the Tennis Center combined.”
And cheering on both Tiafoe and the JTCC was Patrick McEnroe, head of the U.S. Tennis Association’s Player Development Program, who took obvious delight in the achievement, as well as the Orange Bowl’s first all-American boys final since 2004 and the fact that Tiafoe was among three 15-year-old American boys to reach the quarterfinals.
“I’m very excited about what they’re doing at College Park, the fact that Francis has been basically born and bred there and started playing there because his dad worked there,” McEnroe said in a telephone interview. “That’s the thing we’d like to see more of in tennis: More kids getting an opportunity to play. And it’s great that it happened at the JTCC, which has done an amazing job — not just with him, but with a lot of kids. It’s a great example of a program that does it the right way and is able to manage a talent like that.”
The United States is in the midst of an extended drought of world-caliber men’s players, with Roddick, who retired in 2012, the last U.S. man to win a Grand Slam event. And that was more than a decade ago, at the 2003 U.S. Open.
Though the prospects for a short-term fix look bleak, it’s possible that Tiafoe, who also attends school at the JTCC, could be part of the next great generation of U.S. men, capable of challenging for major titles in a few years.
Tiafoe has been ranked internationally along the way, among 12s and 14s. But in the last 10 to 12 months, he has begun to separate himself, when he started competing against players 18 and under, Salazar said.
Just over 6 feet 1 and roughly 165 pounds, Tiafoe boasts an aggressive baseline game, fueled by tennis smarts and competitive fire. “He is obsessed by competition and challenging his will,” Salazar said.
Tiafoe’s dream is nothing less than reaching the top ranks of the pro tour. But he understands there is a progression, and he hopes to take the next step at the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open’s Junior tournaments next year.