PARIS — Just 16, Francis Tiafoe has stepped onto countless tennis courts for tricky opening-round matches in his climb up the age-group rankings.
But on Sunday, Tiafoe found himself on unfamiliar ground with a cacophony of contradictory voices in his head as he stepped onto Court 17 at Roland Garros, the clay-court idyll that’s host of the French Open.
One voice kept reminding him that he wasn’t simply making his debut in the French Open junior tournament; he was debuting as the tournament’s No. 1 seed. Another voice insisted it was just another match, no different than the ones that had come before.
The latter notion took hold of the Prince George’s County native, who overcame his lone rough patch against an inspired French wild card by reeling off 10 consecutive points. And Tiafoe rode that momentum to a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Clement Larriere that sends him into Tuesday’s second round.
“There was a lot of nerves for me, being first time in a [Grand] Slam as the number one seed,” Tiafoe conceded. “There were a lot of nerves for me.”
They vanished quickly. And all that was evident afterward was joy.
Tiafoe was so thrilled he went straight to the media center, delighted that reporters wanted to hear what he had to say, rather than taking the customary 15 minutes to cool down in the locker room or call his parents in Riverdale Park.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Tiafoe said, asked about the attention he had gotten of late, including a front-page story in The Washington Post, a CBS segment and stories in Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and elsewhere. “You realize you’re doing something good and want to keep doing that.
“But I don’t let that get to my head because there have been plenty of good juniors that haven’t made it to the big stage,” Tiafoe added. “I don’t want to be playing on Court 17 for the rest of my life.”
His goal is a date on Philippe Chatrier, the French Open’s roughly 15,000-spectator center court, where 32-year-old Roger Federer was felled by Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis in five sets earlier Sunday and where Rafael Nadal has won eight of the past nine men’s championships.
Though Tiafoe has yet to turn pro, he decided long ago which major title he most wants to win: the French.
“Playing on red clay isn’t easy,” said Tiafoe, who spent the past two weeks training and competing on the surface in Spain in preparation. “It’s pretty physical. I think this would be the toughest one to win. Especially [because] the U.S. doesn’t do great on the clay, that would be great for me to win this title.”
Tiafoe, who has trained since childhood at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center, where his father worked 11 years as a maintenance man, knows the sport’s history well.
Men’s tennis is currently at a low ebb in America. When the 2014 French Open began, the United States had just one men’s player ranked among the top 50: the hard-serving John Isner. Spain, by contrast, had nine men and France eight.
On Sunday, Isner’s vaunted serve amounted to little against sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, who cruised to a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 easy out. As a result, no American man will reach the French Open’s quarterfinals for the 11th consecutive year. The unspoken hope among many who populated the stands on Court 17, set in the far reaches of Roland Garros, was that Tiafoe may prove the man to resurrect the country’s flagging tennis fortunes.
Most, of course, cheered his opponent, given that 17-year-old Larriere is French. And the lanky Larriere competed with wild abandon, uncorking monster serves and blasting groundstrokes with razor-thin margins of error.
Tiafoe’s supporters included David Brewer, tournament director of the U.S. Open; Patrick McEnroe, the USTA’s general manager of player development; a clutch of agents; and former Washington mayor Adrian Fenty, who looked on and cheered with Laurene Powell Jobs.
Frank Salazar, who serves as Tiafoe’s coach in major tournaments, could tell Tiafoe was nervous at the start. It was evident in the little shortcuts he took in his pre-match routine. He would stretch but get distracted, drink water but not quite enough. Both players had nerves at the outset, and each held serve until Tiafoe got the decisive break in the 10th game of the opening set.
With the second set knotted at three games each, Tiafoe hit two careless forehands, normally his weapon, and coughed up a double fault to get broken for the first time.
“Right back, Francis!” shouted Misha Kouznetsov, the JTCC coach who has worked with Tiafoe since age 8. “Right back!”
Tiafoe broke the Frenchman at love, then held serve at love.
“Come on, Francis!” Fenty urged.
“A little lack of focus there,” Tiafoe said later. “[I thought], ‘I’m breaking next game, no matter what!’ I ended up starting to focus even more than I was. I was moving my feet more. And that’s when I’m at my best, when I’m moving and hitting the forehand as much as possible.”
Tiafoe’s reward is a second-round match and a return visit to Court 17.