By Sigurd Neubauer
Frances Tiafoe, 25, won the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship, his second ATP title. The American defeated Tomas Martin Etcheverry of Argentina 7-6(1), 7-6(6) in the final on Sunday, which came with the additional bonus of securing his highest career ranking; He’s now ranked as number 11 in the world.
Tiafoe, who tends to be a crowd favorite, described during the trophy ceremony the final as “an absolute war…I hope you guys [in the crowd] all enjoyed it, because that’s what it’s about.”
On what’s next for Tiafoe, President Vesa Ponkka of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTTC) explains that the American is about to achieve one of his long-time professional goals: to be in the top 10 in the world.
Ponkka knows the ambitious American intimately as Tiafoe has been affiliated with the JTCC for nearly 20 years and frequently returns to train and keep in touch with its staff. He first enrolled at the age of four in 2003. Tiafoe’s presence at the JTCC “is always exciting as he inspires and motivates the next generation of tennis players,” he adds.
Responding to what his recent victory in Houston, Texas, means for the unfolding clay season in Europe, Ponkka explains that it “was a very difficult tournament to play in because of extremely bad weather conditions.” He points out that Tiafoe had to play four full ATP matches over the span 48h-hours. “This is a very difficult thing to do from both an emotional and physical perspective.”
His victory provided Tiafoe with the emotional confidence that he’s in strong enough of a shape to travel to Europe where he will face off against the best on red clay.
“The next seven to eight weeks will be very demanding for Tiafoe as he will be playing the best in the world on red clay at the Monte-Carlo Masters; the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell; the Mutua Madrid Open; the Italian Open; and the French Open at Roland Garros.”
Adds Ponkka: “Traditionally, Americans haven’t done that well in these types of tournaments but hopefully Tiafoe will prevail.”
On what’s next for him, the JTCC president says that if he secures “decent results in Europe,” Tiafoe will be able to achieve his long-standing objective of being ranked inside of top 10.
“If he’s able to do it, it will not only be a big milestone for Tiafoe personally but also for the JTCC and U.S. Tennis.“
For the JTCC, “it would validate all the hard work our team has done for Tiafoe over the past 20 years, especially our holistic approach towards coaching children’s tennis.” On what that means in practice, Ponkka explains without batting an eye: “We care about the player as a person. It is more than just teaching forehand and backhand; we’re mentors,” then quips: “We are proud of the person that Tiafoe is.”
Traditionally, Americans haven’t done that well at clay court tournaments in Europe
Holistic coaching approach
But the JTCC is not just about churning out stars, it is about fostering community, growing the sport, and inspiring youngsters to develop life skills through the pursuit of competition – both on and off the court – by excelling in tennis.
“We have a holistic coaching philosophy, which starts with looking at the individual needs of the person. Next, we examine his or her athletic abilities, and then we focus on developing the tennis,” Ponkka explains.
Describing the JTCC coaching principles, Ponkka points out that it centers on developing the whole person.
Should Tiafoe succeed with becoming a top 10 player in the world, it will also have a significant impact for U.S. tennis and for the Davis Cup in particular as the American team would have two top players. Taylor Fritz, 25, is already within the top 10.
Tiafoe has been eyeing the top 10 ranking for a while, but his ambition extends beyond that.
Ponkka has known Tiafoe ever since he enrolled at the JTCC some 20 years ago. Photo credit: Courtesy
Explains Ponkka: “In professional tennis there are several milestones; one is to win a ‘Grand Slam’ tournament; another is being ranked No. 1 in the world and breaking into the top 10 is just one level below the two most coveted milestones in the game.”
The JTCC president also quotes an old tennis expression, saying that “there are only 10 players within the top 10,” meaning that there are 100,000 players who all want to be part of the elite group.
Should Tiafoe prevail this spring, “he can always see himself as having been a top 10 player in the world,” he adds.
Securing this ranking also comes with significant advantages; Tiafoe will get a high seat in all of the tournaments, which in practice means that he won’t face any of the top players early on in any of the tournaments. This will impact his ability to maintain his ranking; acquire additional ATP points; and it comes with financial advantages as it will impact sponsorship agreements.
Responding to what Tiafoe’s ambition is, Ponkka explains that he’s about to achieve his long-term goal of becoming a top 10-ranked player. “His next goal is to win a ‘Grand Slam,’ which the American believes that he can do.”
The American, the JTCC president points out, “has always done well at Wimbledon as he knows how to play well on grass. While Tiafoe has a good chance there this summer, he may have an even better opportunity at the US Open where he will have the crowd behind him. He knows how to use it to his advantage,” Ponkka says.
Tiafoe believes that he can win a 'Grand Slam' tournament