Out from the shadow

Franklin is stepping out of his brother's shadow (Photo Credit: Michael Bonfigli)

Franklin Tiafoe is stepping out of his brother’s shadow
(Photo Credit: Michael Bonfigli)

The focus of two New York Times  feature stories.

Heaps of praise have been bestowed upon him from tennis scholars including Brad Gilbert.  “That kid’s got the talent to be a real player,” Gilbert noted in a recent Grantland article.

Last December, he captured the illustrious Orange Bowl in historic fashion.  He not only joined the ranks of Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, John McEnroe, Jim Courier and Björn Borg as Orange Bowl victors but he is the youngest player in the tournament’s 67-year history to win the boys’ 18s division.

Fifteen-year-old and Junior Tennis Champions Center player Francis Tiafoe is in the limelight.  He casts a shadow that is as extensive as the universe.

From the perspective of Franklin Tiafoe, Francis’ twin brother, the shadow’s darkness might feel incomprehensibly infinite.  Though they are immensely talented players in their own right, Francis and Franklin have had divergent careers on the junior circuit.

But Franklin is not deterred.

“He has had many accomplishments but it does not really get to me as I am staying in my own lane,” said Franklin.

This sentiment is a recent revelation shaped by long-time College Park Tennis Club (home of JTCC) member Bob Larson.

Larson has an intimate knowledge of the twins’ upbringing as he has known them since they were six. He was well-aware of Franklin’s academic, attitude and on-court discipline issues.  As Larson explains, Francis’ wild successes was the source of Franklin’s acting out:

Franklin has always been friendly, mischievous and tremendously skilled and talented. But focus and his ability to stick with a project would fade.  He was immature but he lived under the shadow of Francis.  They love and respect each other dearly.  But [Francis’] focus and skill level took them further apart.  That was very frustrating for Franklin inside and that is where his temper tantrums come from.  He was trying so hard to be like Francis.

Under the guidance of Larson, Franklin has turned a corner.  Dating back to early 2013, the two meet up at the Club on weekends to train.  Their workouts consist of long-distance runs and feverish ball machine sessions.  For the mindset adjustment, Larson invites Franklin to lunch and presents wisdom gleaned from inspirational books and tidbits from his own journey.

This mentorship is personal.  Larson’s trials and tribulations mirror Franklin’s.  He was a gifted athlete.  His family struggled to make ends meet.  His parent’s hectic work schedules left him devoid of a consistent adult influence.  “In high school, I had a track coach who took me under his wing,” said Larson.  “He showed me not only how to be a good athlete but how to become the kind of student who could go to college.”  Upon graduating high school, the coach inquired about Larson’s next steps.  “I told him I wanted to be a track coach,” responded Larson.  His mentor was flummoxed.  “Well, what are you going to do to make a living,” the coach retorted.  “My job is teaching all day and coaching is afterwards.”  After the fireside chat, Larson enrolled in the University of Massachusetts.

Franklin family Larson

Franklin (second from left) with his family and Bob Larson
(Photo Credit: Michael Bonfigli)

Academics is a core value Larson has instilled in Franklin.  “My emphasis with him is that your schooling is critical,” said Larson. “Tennis is your vehicle but the stern-wheel is your education.” In concert with Larson, Franklin’s coach Misha Kouznetsov engineered admission to the renowned DeMatha Catholic High School. DeMatha’s athletic program prowess is unparalleled.  It was twice named the Sports Illustrated  top athletic program in the nation. The tennis coach expressed an abundance of enthusiasm in bringing Franklin aboard but tuition was an obstacle.  Once again, Larson extended assistance and covered the expense.

Franklin was accepted in the Fall of 2013.  In a short period, he has righted the ship with tennis and academics.  He has played in Mid-Atlantic tournaments and earned a top 50 sectional ranking.  In the classroom, Franklin is maintaining a 3.0 GPA and history class is among his favorite subjects.

“Without Mr. Larson, I do not know where I would be right now,” said Franklin.

The transformation is encapsulated in a gesture by the DeMatha athletic director.  The DeMatha tennis coach does not start full-time until the Spring.  The athletic director instructed Franklin that he could wear the coach’s jacket in the meantime.  “Franklin wears the jacket with tremendous pride at JTCC,” said Larson.  “He looked six inches taller the other day when I saw him with it on.”

In recognition of his unwavering support of Franklin, JTCC’s coaching staff presented Larson with the 2013 Defining Moment Award.  “We work as hard developing our players off the court as we do in achieving results on the court,” explained Vesa Ponkka, JTCC’s Senior Director of Tennis. “For JTCC, a ‘defining moment’ occurs when it all comes together for a player.”

“This achievement is a remarkable example of the positive environment and relationship between the Club and JTCC,” said JTCC CEO Ray Benton. “But more importantly, it showcases Bob’s ongoing support of JTCC’s overall mission to mentor our young players on and off the court. We are proud of Franklin for all of his hard work and would like to thank Bob for making Franklin’s dream become a reality.”

There are tentative plans for Franklin and Francis to play doubles together in upcoming tournaments this summer.  They are determined to cast a new shadow and this time it will be a joint venture.  For certain, Bob Larson will be in the stands for their first match as teammates.

“They will be a dominating force and someone needs to follow in the footsteps of the Bryan Brothers,” declared Larson.

“It is another story yet to be written.”

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