At a time when other 16-year-olds are mowing lawns, attending camp or working at the mall, Francis Tiafoe is trying to make his name on the tennis court.
Tuesday’s schedule was particularly packed.
Having rolled through the first five rounds of the Citi Open Wild Card Challenge without conceding a set, Tiafoe took the court at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center to contest the final against his good friend and training partner, Jordi Arconada.
It, too, was a straight-set affair, though not without challenges. Tiafoe wrapped up the 6-1 , 7-6 (7-3) victory shortly after 1 p.m. With it, he clinched a wild-card entry into qualifying for Washington’s hard-court classic, the Citi Open, at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center July 26-Aug. 3.
Following the trophy presentation, two interviews and a quick shower, Tiafoe hopped into a waiting cab for a trip to Dulles Airport, where he and Frank Salazar, his coach for major events, had a 6 p.m. flight to London. It was Tiafoe’s second overseas trip in the past five weeks.
Upon landing in London on Wednesday morning, Tiafoe will launch into a crash-course in grass-court tennis in advance of his next major international challenge, Wimbledon’s junior tournament, where he’ll seek to become the first American to claim the boys’ title since Donald Young in 2007.
He’ll enter one grass-court tuneup , the Nike Junior International at Roehampton, which starts Sunday.
Though still an amateur, as well as a sophomore who’s pursuing his high school diploma at the JTCC’s school and online, Tiafoe is trying to carry himself like the tennis pro he hopes to become.
This summer will tell the 6-foot-1 teen a lot about where he stands in relation to the world’s top juniors (aged 18 and under ), as well as the fully grown pros he’ll face if he reaches the main draw of the Citi Open or the pro events he hopes to enter in Atlanta and Newport, R.I., in July and August.
Installed as the No. 1 seed at the French Open’s junior event, Tiafoe won just one match, ousted in the second round by an unseeded German, who was considerably bigger, hit harder and competed with more intensity in the decisive third set. The upshot was a lesson in the danger posed by hungry, early-round opponents.
Since then, Tiafoe has slipped from the world’s No. 2 junior to No. 8 and has been overtaken as the top American junior by sixth-ranked Stefan Kozlov.
The caliber of the competition wasn’t as high at the Citi Open Wild Card Challenge. But Tiafoe needed the seasoning of match play, and the quick pace of hard-court tennis is more akin to grass than was the Parisian red clay.
It was 90 degrees, sunny and cloudless, when Tuesday’s final got under way before a crowd of about 200, who watched from a shaded veranda.
Tiafoe committed five unforced errors on the first six points but settled down to break Arconada in the third and fifth games and close the opening set in roughly 25 minutes.
The second set proved more of a struggle. Tiafoe had taken a 4-2 lead, two games from victory, when his focus seemed to wander and his intensity wane.
Arconada, 17, raised his game in response and reeled off three successive games to take a 5-4 lead. The Puerto Rico native easily ran down drop shots that lacked sufficient bite, and he handled Tiafoe’s bullet serves well. Facing a must-hold service game, Tiafoe knotted the score. Two games later, a tiebreak was needed to settle it.
“That wasn’t easy, especially in the beginning, I was winning so easily,” Tiafoe said. “It was tough because you always want a good match against a guy you train with every day and know so well. At 6-1 , 4-2 up, I definitely think I slowed down.”
Earlier Tuesday, Usue Arconada — the 15-year-old sister of Jordi — turned back a stiff challenge by Skylar Morton to win the women’s title, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5.