COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Following tennis usually means chasing summer, with players training on sunbaked courts in Florida and California and traveling the globe in search of sunshine.
But some of the most fertile soil for cultivating tennis talent is not known for palm trees. Junior Tennis Champions Center in suburban Washington, tucked just inside the Beltway, has proved itself a national leader in year-round training in the sport despite patches of snow that stubbornly cling to the edges of the facility’s driveway.
“It’s kind of lazy thinking, that it’s in a cold-weather location, so it cannot work,” said Vesa Ponkka, a native of Finland and the center’s director of tennis. “We choose to look at it as, if the training is good, training is good. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining outside or if we just have good lighting systems inside.”
With 15 indoor courts at the center complementing 17 outdoor ones, Ponkka has led a group of coaches in harvesting local tennis talent, rather than trying to cull the best from around the country and the world. Matt Roth for The New York Times
“We are not looking at bringing in someone from Europe and then taking credit for him,” Ponkka said. “We are trying to find kids when they are really young, and then we really invest our time and resources.”
The center was founded in 1999 by the investment banker Ken Brody.
His investments allowed the center to operate as a nonprofit, which has helped attract athletes who otherwise would not be able to have elite training.
Ray Benton, the center’s chief executive since 2008, said that his ultimate goal was “filling every empty tennis court” in America and that he immediately supported Brody’s vision.
“I like people who have ambitious, audacious ideas,” Benton said. “And I thought it would be really good for the sport.”
Benton added that Brody’s finances gave the operation a flexibility and an autonomy that were enabling and exacting.
“Do we have more freedom of choice here?” Benton said. “Absolutely, which is a big plus — if you’re making the right choices.”
The player who best embodies the center’s inclusiveness and emphasis on the area has also proved to be one of its most successful. Francis Tiafoe, who turns 16 this month, spent much of his childhood residing in a room at the center while his father worked there as a maintenance man.
Watching practice sessions when he was younger, Tiafoe became mesmerized by players like Denis Kudla of Arlington, Va., who is now on the ATP Tour and who cracked the top 100 for the first time in 2013, and Mitchell Frank of Vienna, Va., who won the decisive match for Virginia in the N.C.A.A. team final last spring.
Tiafoe, who participated in on-court programs as well, has risen through the junior ranks. In December, he became the youngest boys’ singles champion in the 67-year history of the prestigious Orange Bowl junior tournament in Plantation, Fla.
“Without this place, I probably could just be a regular kid, going to a regular school, doing what a regular 15-year-old would do,” Tiafoe said. “But with all the stuff they’ve helped me with, I’m doing not the ordinary. This place means a lot to me.”
Ponkka, the center’s director of tennis, said, “There are so many people in the organization who have helped him over the years that, if he ever goes and wins a big tournament and he has to make a thank-you speech, you know, it’s going to be like a phone book.”
Misha Kouznetsov, a former collegiate player in Baltimore, has coached Tiafoe since he was 8. Kouznetsov stressed that the continuity he had working with Tiafoe was a major advantage of the center’s setup.
In the United States Tennis Association model, Kouznetsov said, “The coaches work at one age group for maybe one year or two, and then the next coach takes it for one year or two, and then another coach.”
Tiafoe said he also enjoyed the relative seclusion of training in Maryland, north of the fray of Florida academies.
“You’re not worried about what someone is doing on the next court,” he said. “No one is near you; you’re just worried about yourself.”
Older players have also honed their skills at the center. Alison Riske, 23, a Pittsburgh native ranked 57th in the world, spent much of her off-season training there.
“I’m so impressed by Francis,” said Riske, who has practiced with Tiafoe on occasion. “That is one kid who loves the game more than anyone I’ve ever met. I think it’s so cool.”
Riske said she was especially impressed by Tiafoe’s return to training after his triumph at the Orange Bowl.
“He got back Sunday night, and he was out here Monday morning,” she said. “And I said, ‘Wow, that’s a champion.’ ”
Tiafoe said of the Orange Bowl: “If you really look down at the champions, there are some champions that have won that tournament that I’ve never heard of. And I don’t want to be that guy, especially now that I’m the youngest to win it.”
Tiafoe is also determined to finish high school and does his schoolwork in a classroom tucked into the garret of the clubhouse.
“I never try to get ahead of myself because there’s nothing that bothers me more than cockiness,” he said. “I don’t think that’s necessary at all. If anything, you just let your racket talk — there’s no reason for you to talk if your racket can.”