Many sibling duos have taken over the world together: the Bryans, the McEnroes, the Murrays, the Zverevs and the Williamses, to name a few. Franklin Tiafoe is looking to add another name to the list.
The world is well aware of Frances Tiafoe. Currently ranked No. 52, the 21-year-old won his first ATP title last February in Delray Beach. He has rocked American tennis with his meteoric rise, and will have many eyes on him at next week’s US Open.
But Frances has a twin brother, Franklin, who’s trying to carve out his place too.
“I want to be known as Franklin Tiafoe, not Frances’s brother,” he told Baseline.
The Tiafoe story has been heard before. Although the brothers’ mother and father met in the U.S., both were born in Sierra Leone. Their father, Frances Tiafoe Sr., comes from a wealthy family, and was a successful politician, and their mother, Alphina Kamara, comes from a large, modest family. Frances Sr. was able to come over to America many times, before making a permanent move.
Not long after, Alphina won the U.S. Green Card lottery and left behind a country in the midst of civil war. Both Frances Sr. and Alphina ended up in College Park, Maryland, where they met and eventually had twin boys, Frances Jr. and Franklin. A few years later, Frances Sr. took a construction job at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) where he helped build the courts and was eventually promoted to head of maintenance.
When the boys were young, Frances Sr. would bring them to JTCC while he worked his shifts. They would help out by throwing out trash, clearing up the balls, and sweeping and watering the clay courts. The brothers would sometimes pick up racquets to play with when there was a court available. Being around tennis so much instilled a desire in both Frances and Franklin to want to play more. With their mother working double shifts as a nurse, Franklin and Frances spent a lot of nights sleeping in the massage room at the JTCC.
“Back then, we were so small that we could fit on the massage table side by side,” Franklin says. “My brother and I would talk about our dreams of playing pro tennis while we fell asleep on those massage tables.”
The Tiafoes picked up the game quickly, demonstrating natural talent and ability. The coaches at the JTCC soon took note and gave them an opportunity to enroll in clinics for free. Their first official coach, Misha Kuznetsov, saw their pure love for the sport and believed they could excel professionally, or at least, earn college scholarships.
“He truly took my brother and I under his wing,” Franklin says.
According to Franklin, Frances was a very focused child and knew how to block all distractions. Franklin, on the other hand, was the opposite. He was the wild child and often found himself getting into trouble. When the boys were about 11 years old, Frances surpassed Franklin on the court and was offered a place in the homeschooling program at the tennis center. Kuznetsova started focusing more on Frances, while Franklin was grounded too often for any coach to work with him.
As his brother developed into a top player, Franklin never worked consistently with a coach. Instead, he would train alone. He still had the dream of one day playing professional tennis, but he still had a troublemaker reputation and felt like no one took him seriously.
Franklin took responsibility for his own game, spending late nights at the courts hitting serves and practicing with one of his best friends, Kenneth Downing. He would also spend evenings in the gym working out.
“My mama would call me thinking I was messing around in the streets, but I was literally in the gym and on the court 24/7,” he says.
When the brothers’ sophomore year of high school rolled around, a member of the JTCC who is also a very close family friend of the Tiafoes, Bob Larson, offered Franklin a spot on the DeMatha Catholic High School team.
Playing tennis at DeMatha, Franklin matured immensely, and though he was the best player on the team, he had to make sure that he focused hard on his school work so that he was eligible to compete. Still, Franklin would play with a chip on his shoulder as he was constantly being compared to his brother. He was never known as “Franklin Tiafoe” but instead as “Frances’ brother.”
During his junior year, he was offered an opportunity to play Division I tennis at the University of Maryland. But just before the start of his freshman year, Maryland cut their men’s tennis team, leaving Franklin feeling lost. He decided to travel with his brother to a string of ITF and ATP Challengers, watching him crack the Top 100.
After the end of the summer, a JTCC alum, Eric Spangler, introduced Franklin to Division III tennis at a college in Maryland, Salisbury University. Since Franklin lacked a junior ranking, he jumped at the offer, but his coach put him on the bench. Franklin lost his motivation both on the court and in the classroom.
The trials continued for Franklin during his next semester as his grades were so low that he was not eligible to play. Feeling down, he decided to leave Salisbury and enroll in classes at a local community college back home. He was back to training at the JTCC, largely on his own and working out with Downing again.
His dreams took a big turn upward when his parents recently sent him to Orlando to the USTA National Campus, where he is now training at the headquarters of American tennis. His hopes for the future?
“Hustle and be the best I can be, and motivate the young ones coming up,” he says.
At 21, he now feels like he can officially begin his professional career, while also supporting his twin as Frances heads into the US Open. Who knows, maybe in 2021 you’ll see two Tiafoes in the US Open draw.
Follow Rachel Stuhlmann on Instagram @RStuhlmann.