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During the Australian Open earlier this year, a tennis fan approached Zack Evenden and asked for his autograph. Caught off guard, Evenden responded that he wasn’t a player. The fan insisted. “I know exactly who you are,” Evenden remembers him saying.
He signed the autograph, but still doesn’t feel comfortable with the growing attention. “It’s not normal to me,” he says. “It’s not natural, so I feel uncomfortable.”
Evenden may have to get used to it. His first professional tennis coaching gig has allowed him to visit the most hallowed courts in the sport. He shares the same spaces as tennis legends throughout the year. And he gets to spend time working and traveling the world with a famous close friend.
Since last November, Evenden has been Frances Tiafoe’s lone coach.
The 21-year-old Tiafoe won his first Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) title in Delray Beach, Florida in 2018, achieved a career-high ranking of No. 29 in the world this February, and reached the quarterfinals of this year’s Australian Open, all with the help of Evenden, who is 27.
“I always count myself very lucky, and that’s what drives me to be very honest with him, trying to get him to do new things,” Evenden says. “Never settling. Never getting comfortable, because I know I’m very fortunate to have the relationship I have with Frances, to be in the position I am.”
The two have been friends since 2014, long before Evenden even considered being Tiafoe’s coach. He lives in Tampa, Florida, and Tiafoe befriended Evenden while training in Orlando. Tennis, Evenden says, was a “quite small” part early on in their relationship.
But over time, Evenden started sending Tiafoe text messages before certain matches, and then they’d chat briefly afterward. When plans to go to Asia in 2017 with another pro tennis player fell through, Tiafoe invited Evenden to join him through the winter season as an assistant coach.
“It was never planned. Everything has just happened naturally between us,” says Evenden, a London native who played collegiate tennis at Florida A&M. “It wasn’t a plan for me to be by myself with him. We didn’t plan for it, but we had full faith we would be able to do a great job of it, which we have done so far.”
Evenden considers Andy Murray to be the pioneer of this unique player-coach relationship. From 2010 until 2014, Murray hired his friend Dani Vallverdú as his coach. Evenden sees more players taking this approach. “They’re more open minded to it,” he says.
Having someone trustworthy on the team is paramount for Tiafoe, a 21-year-old Hyattsville native who keeps a tight-knit relationship with his family.
“We’re really close. We’re like brothers pretty much,” Tiafoe says. “We spend a ton of time together. I see him all the time. It’s bigger than a coach-player relationship, I think … Friendship for me is really important. Everybody I surround with myself with I’m really close with. My agent, I’m really close close with. All my family around, I’m extremely close with. I’m a guy who likes true relationships, not fake stuff. If I’m going to be involved with someone, I’m gonna take everyone in as family. I cherish our relationship. I take it very seriously.”
Evenden insists that he had no concerns that working for his friend would affect their relationship. He had too many other things to think about.
“There’s so much at stake, there’s so many tournaments, it’s tough to take things for granted and stuff like that,” he says. “So there’s always a task at hand, so I just try to focus on that more.”
With only a six year age difference, the pair knows when to be serious and when to let loose. During a recent practice at the Citi Open (a tournament managed by City Paper owner Mark Ein), Evenden roamed the court, but said little, allowing Tiafoe to figure out his game in a practice set against 18-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime. But when the session was over, Evenden and Tiafoe could be seen laughing on the bench.
“It’s enough where he respects me as being older than him, so that’s good,” Evenden says of the age difference. “I think that counts for a lot of worth. Every now and then he’ll joke, on one hand, I think we’re the same age when we’re having fun, but on the other hand, I always remind myself, yeah, Zack is six years older than him. I think he values that.”
Coaching someone in Tiafoe’s generation, Gen Z, requires limiting distractions, Evenden explains. He’ll remind Tiafoe to put down his phone, and when to focus, but for the most part, he says, Tiafoe will meet him halfway. At the bigger tournaments, the two are also joined by physio Bret Waltz.
Earlier this year, Tiafoe bought an apartment at the Wharf, while Evenden still considers Tampa his home base. But the coach plans to move this offseason. He’s looking at places in D.C.