Frances Tiafoe Is Representing D.C. Right, Bringing The Energy

Frances Tiafoe (photo: Ben Solomon/Mubadala Citi DC Open)

WASHINGTON, August 2, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

Frances Tiafoe, the tenth-ranked American star, has been enjoying a homecoming week in Washington, D.C. playing in his favorite tournament, the Mubadala Citi DC Open, a first-of-its-kind in the world ATP/WTA 500 combined event.

On Tuesday, the charismatic 25-year-old with the infectious smile, who has spoken at length about his tennis roots training at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, stood center stage on a packed 7,500-seat Stadium Court in a prime-time slot that was broadcast across the U.S. on Tennis Channel and for a global audience by the ATP.

The No. 2 seed Tiafoe beat No. 75 Aslan Karatsev of Russia, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5), in his first singles match of the tournament with NBA global superstar Kevin Durant, another local hero, occupying a front-row seat next to new Washington Commanders owner Josh Harris and DC Open chairman Mark Ein. The Maryland native advanced to face qualifier Juncheng “Jerry” Shang of China in the third round on Thursday.

“Think about it. I was a kid who had an opportunity and dreamed massively big,” Tiafoe, who broke into the Top 10 earlier this season, said in his post-match news conference. “Shouldn’t be doing any of these things, honestly. [I was] sneaking into this event, telling my parents I was going to be a pro at a super young age, against all odds, wearing hand-me-down clothes, holes in my shoes, cargo shorts.

“Now, I’m playing this tournament. People are here to see me. I’m packing it out. Doubles was nuts [Monday]. Packed it out today. Guys like KD (Durant) and [Kentavious] Caldwell-Pope (who plays with the NBA champion Denver Nuggets) and Gaff (Daniel Gafford of the Washington Wizards) want to come see me play.

“I have just worked really hard over the years,” added Tiafoe, who improved to 23-2 against players ranked outside the Top 50 with his victory over Karatsev. “I think it’s come from a great place. I’m super humble about it. I’m humble they want to take the time out and come and watch me play. Yeah, it’s so impactful, and it’s one of those things you want to keep these moments going.”

Imagine being the center of attention and rising to the occasion like Tiafoe did against Karatsev. “It was just a great atmosphere,” he said. “Everyone is going nuts. I have never filled a stadium before in my opening match, so I guess it’s a testament to how I have been doing lately.”

Don’t be surprised if Tiafoe’s next match, against the #NextGenATP rising star Shang,  garners another Stadium evening-session slot. After all, his entertaining performance is just what helps sell tickets – and he enjoys being the center of attention. Take note ATP.

Michael Mmoh has strong D.C. family connections

Michael Mmoh might have been born and raised in Riyadh where his father, Tony, a former pro from Nigeria, worked in Saudi Arabia as that nation’s Davis Cup captain. However, the young American, who began playing tennis at age 3, has strong connections to the D.C. area. His father settled in the region and Mmoh’s brothers and sisters all grew up in the area.

The 25-year-old Mmoh, currently ranked 112th after a career-high 82, considers Washington his second home and calls the NFL Commanders and NBA Wizards his own teams.

As Tuesday afternoon turned to evening and the crowd filled up John Harris Court, Mmoh saved a trio of match points against fourth seed and World No. 17 Hubert Hurkacz and upset the popular and powerful-serving Polish star, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), in an exciting and entertaining two-hour, 55-minute tussle. It advanced Mmoh to the third round against fellow American and 16th seed J.J. Wolf.

One of the match points that Mmoh erased came on his serve at 5-4 in the third set after he lost an exhausting 38 shots at deuce. It was that kind of match in which both competitors traded baseline blows galore.

“This [win] is definitely pretty special because it was on home soil,” Mmoh said in a post-match news conference. The victory improved his record on Tour this season to 9-7. “To get one here in a place I like, you know, I call it a second home in a way, it’s pretty cool.

“Once it went to a third-set tiebreaker, I was honestly kind of happy about that, just because I was down three match points at 5-4 in the third. Like, I knew he was going to be feeling the pressure a little bit more than me at that point.

“At the end of the day, you know, it’s 5-all, 6-all in the third, would you take that chance or would you like your chances in the moment? You know, I would definitely like my chances. I just kept on telling myself that, that you know, I’m in the battle with one of the best players in the world — and you know, just enjoy it.”

Home soil upsets are becoming the norm for Hailey Baptiste

Young American Hailey Baptiste grew up within walking distance of the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park, has always done well on her hometown courts.

Baptiste made her WTA Tour debut here four years ago on Stadium Court and beat then-No. 17 Madison Keys, 7-6 (4), 6-2, for her first career win. On Tuesday afternoon, following back-to-back wins in qualifying to earn a berth in the main draw, the 21-year-old D.C. native beat former World No. 1 and two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova, 6-1, 0-6, 6-3, for her second Top 50 victory. It earned her a round-of-16 showdown with World No. 7 Coco Gauff in a featured night-session match on Stadium Court Wednesday evening.

Although the 204th-ranked Baptiste has toiled mostly on the lower-rung ITF circuit this season, reaching two finals and winning a title on clay in Caserta, Italy, she’s risen to the occasion this week at home. Her win over Pliskova, 31, who owns 16 WTA titles, has been her biggest of the year.

“Obviously, it’s a much bigger level than most of the tournaments I’ve played this year,” Baptiste said. “So, it feels really good to be on this stage and doing well.”

And what did Baptiste think of her victory over Pliskova in this WTA 500 event? “I think it’s just more proof that I am where I belong,” she said, “and that I can continue to rise up in the rankings and that the goals that I do have are not out of reach and they are closer than I think.”