Frances Tiafoe: The Importance of Giving Back
Throughout Black History Month, USTA.com will feature a series of first-person essays from prominent Black voices in the tennis world. Leading the series is Frances Tiafoe, who’s been ranked inside the ATP’s Top 30, and recently won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for his off-court work in 2020.
In his essay, Tiafoe discusses the importance—for him and for others—of giving back and using whatever platform you may have to advocate for positive change.
LeBron James says it best: we are more than athletes. In our position, with the followings that we have, we have to be more than that. People care what we do; we have an opportunity to inspire.
If athletes are speaking out against problems, particularly racial inequality and social injustice in America and around the world, our voices can contribute to movement on that front. I believe that change can happen, even if it happens slowly.
In the past, I did a lot of work in that regard, but it was more low-key. Now, with everything going on, I feel compelled to be more vocal. After all, if you don’t speak up now, when will you? For everyone, athlete or not, it’s time to speak up and time to use your own platform—whatever your platform is in life. For me, it’s tennis.
It’s not just about forehands and backhands. We have real-life problems. We want togetherness, we want equality. That’s all we’re really asking for. Nothing absurd—just equal rights for everybody. It shouldn’t be that hard.
I always reference this Arthur Ashe quote: “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”
Take what you get in life, but always be giving. Always think about more than just yourself. How can you not only impact yourself, but impact others and put people in positions to win? That’s ultimately the biggest thing. I look at those who struggle, those in low-income communities, and ask myself: how is me playing tennis going to put them in a position to win? How can I do that and be creative? There are so many layers to that quote, and they are words I try to live by every day.
You’ve got to have the mindset that whatever you do, you’re not doing it all for yourself. I like how social media can be used, but I do things because I want to make a difference. I don’t need to get a phone out and post about it every time. That’s not what it’s about. Shaq is a great example. He goes every Thanksgiving and gives a huge amount of turkeys to his community. Sometimes it’s documented, sometimes it’s not. But that’s not what it’s about.
It’s important for me to give back, for so many different reasons. I was that kid. I didn’t grow up with much, but I had a dream. I had a vision and attacked it every day. All that it took was an opportunity. I had a sniff of a chance and I ran with it. I’d like others to know that perseverance can take you to places you never thought were possible in your circumstances. Self-belief is a wonderful thing; a magical thing. Whenever I get the chance to talk to others—especially to kids—I try to drive that idea home with them. You always help the guys and girls coming after you. But you don’t want them to be just like you. Essentially, you want them to be better.
With younger players—like Robin Montgomery and Hailey Baptiste, who are both from the Washington, D.C., area—I always give back. I’ve had a relationship with Robin and Hailey for years, and I also do a lot through the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation (WTEF), as well as for other causes in the city. I stay very involved with various inner-city tennis foundations. I think it’s so big knowing that someone who’s been through your struggles, someone of the same skin color cares and is there for you. You just can’t understate the importance of that; it gives you confidence. It’s someone you can just vent to and be real with—a person who can understand what you’re going through now and, hopefully, give you that blueprint for what lies ahead. I always want to be a sounding board for them and I’m always here for anything they need. I just want them to be great.
Photos: Tiafoe at the 2020 US Open (Essay continues below)
Whether it’s on or off the tennis court, working with and helping to educate inner-city kids is a big passion of mine. I want to see more Black kids playing the game of tennis, and I hope I can use my success to make that a reality. I believe I have had an impact around my hometown, in the DMV area—D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Looking forward, I want to work on some cool campaigns to expand that reach and do more.
I also want to recognize Naomi Osaka, looking back on what she did at the US Open to raise awareness. No one else could have stopped the Western & Southern Open—maybe Serena, but you need to be a true legend to have that impact. Naomi was able to draw attention to social injustice by being willing to withdraw from the tournament. Standing up like that is so influential. That’s huge respect, huge togetherness. That’s what it’s about.
Personally, there is still so much that I need to learn, and there are so many things I want to accomplish, both in tennis and in society. I just turned 23 last month, but I have been on the Tour for a while, so people take me for older than I am sometimes. I’ve got a lot of time to leave my mark, and I hope I can inspire others to lift their voices while I’m at it.
Read more Black History Month content on USTA.com's BHM landing page.