Orange Bowl tennis

Up-and-coming Tiafoe reaches quarters of 18s


Special to the Miami Herald

A year ago, it was one and done for Francis Tiafoe as he played as a 14-year-old in the 16-under division of the Orange Bowl International Championships and lost in the first round to eventual champion Andrey Rublev.

This year has been a huge improvement.

“Way, way better,” said Tiafoe, one of the fast-rising young players for the United States.

On Thursday, as the No. 13 seed in the boys’ 18-under division at the Metropolia OB tournament, Tiafoe dominated No. 3 seed Filippo Baldi of Italy, 6-0, 6-3, to advance to the quarterfinals at the Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation. Now 15, Tiafoe could have been playing in the 16-under division again this year but has opted for the 18-under competition.

“He’s had a racquet in his hand since he started walking,” said his coach, Frank Salazar, who has known Tiafoe since he was two-years-old. “He used to just drag the racquet around on the court.”

Tennis courts have been a constant in Tiafoe’s life. His father was head of maintenance at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md. That meant Francis was pretty much immersed in the sport whether he liked it or not. Fortunately, he liked it — liked it a lot.

Salazar said: “He has an unusual passion and love for the game of tennis.”

Even so, did he ever want to take a break from the sport and those four-hour practice sessions?

“Never,” Tiafoe said strongly. “I have never had a day where I didn’t want to play.”

And Thursday was a perfect day to play in sunny South Florida with picture-perfect weather. Back at Tiafoe’s home in Maryland, the high temperature was in the mid-20s with the low dropping down into the teens.

At 15, Tiafoe looks 17 or 18, standing 6-1½ and weighing 164 pounds. “My dad is pretty tall, around 6-3,” he explained.

He has remained loyal as a player to the Junior Tennis Champions Center, where his career stated — even if he was too young to remember when and how it started.

Tiafoe, with a friendly smile, is outgoing to people. “He’s very positive, enjoys life, likes to be around people and his friends,” Salazar said.

However, there is one person he is sometimes mean and unfriendly to. That would be himself.

When Tiafoe is playing, he becomes intense. When he hits a poor shot, he grimaces, he chastises himself, he urges himself in no uncertain terms to do better.

“I hate to lose,” Tiafoe explained. “When it comes to competing, I am hard on myself. But, at the same time, I always respect my opponent.”

Tiafoe was pleased with his dominating performance Thursday. “I played very well on both sides,” he said.

As for the possibility of winning the prestigious OB title, he said, “I don’t take it that far at this point.”

However, there is one thing he covets in the distant future —“I want to play pro tennis.”

His coach, not his parents, travel to tournaments with him. “I always call them and tell them how I did,” Tiafoe said. “They’re never hard on me even if I lose.”

With that said, Tiafoe excused himself. He had a phone call to make — to mom and dad.

• In other key boys’ 18 matches: No.1 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany defeated Francisco Bahamonde of Argentina, 6-2, 6-0; No.4 seed 15-year-old Stefan Kozlov of the U.S. topped Weiqiang Zheng of China, 6-2, 6-2; and No.6 Michael Mmoh of the U.S. defeated Marcelo Zormann of Brazil, 6-3, 6-4

In key girls’ 18 matches: No.1 seed Varvara Flink of Russia defeated 14th-seeded Fanny Stollar of Hungary, 6-7 (2-7), 6-1, 6-2; and Tornado Black, a third seed from the United States, topped Mexico’s Renata Zarazua, 6-2, 6-2.

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