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Josh Hublitzcould tell there was something different about his opponent that day. The boy standing across the net at a junior tennis tournament in College Park more than 10 years ago was smaller and looked younger than the other kids in the draw. After winners, he would pump his fist and yell. And when Hublitz lost in the quarterfinals, 6-3, 6-0, the boy fell backwards onto the court—“Like he won Wimbledon,” Hublitz says—before walking over to the net to give his vanquished opponent a hug.
Hublitz wasn’t quite sure what had happened or how to react. His father, Marty, was standing nearby and started laughing.
“I told myself, ‘This guy just loves tennis more than anything,’” recalls Hublitz, a 23-year-old collegiate tennis player from Vienna. “That kind of stuck with me.”
That energetic, passionate, skinny boy who was beating up on older opponents would turn out to be one of the best tennis players to ever come out of the D.C. area. It was the first, but not the last time that Hublitz would experience being on the losing side against Frances Tiafoe, a Hyattsville native, now 20, who is considered to be a rising tennis star in a country that’s been yearning for the next American men’s tennis champion.
But before he was ranked top 50 in the world, Tiafoe was a goofy kid who could not hold a serious conversation, and loved nothing more than to be playing a competitive tennis match, childhood friends like Hublitz recall. Knowing Tiafoe and playing against him—and occasionally beating him—has inspired his friends, who still keep in contact with him and cheer him on.
And if there’s anything these friends have learned, it’s to never bet against Tiafoe on the tennis court.
“It’s honestly really cool and it’s awesome,” says Hublitz, a Division 1 tennis player at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “All of us who are friends with him from the Mid-Atlantic area are just happy for him. We know his story. …It’s exciting to see the development of someone you know personally turn into one of the best tennis players in the world.”
On a hot and humid Sunday afternoon at the Citi Open tennis tournament in Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, Tiafoe walks onto the practice courts with his friend and fellow pro player, 25-year-old Denis Kudla of Arlington, in preparation for their upcoming singles and doubles matches.
Kudla grew up with Tiafoe at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park. He knew Tiafoe when he was just a kid running around the center with his twin brother, Franklin. Tiafoe’s father worked there as a maintenance man and the boys received free tennis lessons as a result.
Being five years older, Kudla wasn’t that close to Tiafoe during his time at the center. And he had his own career to worry about. Before Tiafoe, Kudla was the one setting the bar for high-ranked junior players coming out of the Mid-Atlantic region.
“Did I expect him to be this good? Not really,” Kudla told reporters after his first round Citi Open victory. “I started believing it when he was probably, 16, 17, and he started making some pretty awesome strides. I was like, ‘Wow this guy is going to be dangerous.’ I think the first time we practiced, he was like 16 and I felt the power of his ball, and I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Over time, the two have grown close—they are both big Washington Capitals fans—and have teamed up as doubles partners at the Citi Open. They appear at ease with each other during practice, joking during breaks, and are supportive of each other.
“I think he’s going to be a top 20, probably top 10 player, honestly,” Kudla says. “And to have that as a good friend of mine and someone to push me for hopefully the next 10 years, I couldn’t be happier.”
As Tiafoe and Kudla practice, Hublitz is two courts over, hitting with 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece. Hublitz is home for a few days from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is working this summer, and signed up to be a practice partner for professional players.
Standing on the other side of the fence is Dennis Wang, a 21-year-old from Germantown who plays tennis at Yale. Wang watches just inches away as Tiafoe cracks another forehand shot down the line to Kudla. A few years ago, Wang was the one on the receiving end of these shots, and in 2011, he even beat Tiafoe at a Mid-Atlantic 16-and-under tournament.
The two were once roommates at a tournament, and still keep in touch via Facebook messages.
“I hope he goes to number one in the world, so I can say I beat a number one player before,” Wang says with laugh.
Tiafoe was always having the best time on the court, Anton Zykov remembers. In 2011, Zykov, Tiafoe, Hublitz, and Chris Vrabel qualified to represent the United States Tennis Association Mid-Atlantic section in the intersectional tournament in Shreveport, Louisiana.
For the boys, this meant playing against some of the best junior players across the country in one of the biggest tournaments of their young careers. The four lived together in a house, and Zykov recalls that Tiafoe would crack jokes with the hosts. The next day, he would go on court, laughing during warm-up, even in between points.
“Meanwhile, I’m getting frustrated,” says Zykov, a 23-year-old from Vienna who played collegiate tennis at Amherst College. “Next thing you know he’s hitting the best shots you’ve ever seen.”
“I can’t bet against Frances ever,” he continues. “I think he can go all the way to the top.”
Zykov owns a few victories over Tiafoe during their junior careers (“I feel like I can take a little bit of credit now,” he laughs), and the fact that they were once teammates is something he still brags about to his friends. After Tiafoe wins a big match, or hits another milestone in his career, Zykov walks over to his coworkers, and gently reminds them, “Hey, I know that kid.”
“It’s incredible, are you kidding?” Zykov says. “It’s hard to describe. I don’t have any other friends nearly like Frances, nearly as successful or nearly as interesting.”
And whenever Zykov texts or sends a Snapchat message to Tiafoe, he receives a reply. Same for Hublitz. No matter how high Tiafoe rises in the rankings, or how big his profile gets, his childhood friends say they don’t expect their former teammate to ever change. He’s still the same goofy guy, except he’s no longer the smallest one in the group.
“It’s cool. I mean all the support I knew from people before I was a pro is good,” Tiafoe says. “You don’t want to lose that. I like to be involved with friends like that.”