Frances Tiafoe: My Letter To Arthur Ashe
I did not have much growing up. My parents are both immigrants from Sierra Leone. My dad was a janitor at a tennis facility in Maryland, and I was lucky to be around the sport from a young age, even if I did not have the money or opportunities a lot of other kids did. None of that stopped me from dreaming big. I pushed myself to the limit every day with a big smile on my face.
Here I am, 22 years old, and I just found out that I won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award. That little kid with big dreams now has his name associated with yours. That is insane.
But I know this is not just an award. It is a tremendous honor and a massive responsibility. I am not just that smiley kid on the rise anymore. I know I need to carry the torch and make a difference in the world.
This year my girlfriend and I made a video called, “Racquets Down, Hands Up” to try to spread awareness about unjust deaths of African-Americans in the United States. We were able to get a lot of Black tennis players involved, from Serena Williams and Coco Gauff to Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
I wanted people to know that everybody matters. It does not matter who you are, where you come from or what the color of your skin is. Everybody has the opportunity to be something special. I was one of those kids who did not have a great chance of making it this far. Winning this award is just a reminder that now that I’m here, I need to pay it forward and help the next generation.
I wasn’t lucky enough to be around when you were doing your thing, but I know you were so much bigger than tennis. Honestly, you could have been the President! Something you once said always sticks with me: “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”
I mean damn, that is deep. Nothing you ever did was about you. You were just trying to be a person first and an athlete second. It was always about helping others. That is truly inspirational.
One of the craziest things about you is that everyone knows all the work you put in to make the world a better place. But you won Grand Slams, bro! I wish I could just pick your brain to find out how you were able to be as successful as you were on court while still being a great humanitarian.
I know balancing both is not easy, especially with eyes on you. One of the biggest things I have learned is you cannot try to achieve other people’s expectations. You just have to strive to be the best version of yourself and be your own biggest critic. I think that helps me be comfortable in my own skin. I know I’m giving it my all on and off the court.
In the grand scheme of things, I know there’s a clock on my career. I cannot play at the highest level forever, but I will be living for many, many years once I hang up my racquets. It sucks you are not here anymore and I was not able to meet you, but rest easy man. You are still making an impact.
That is why I know it is important to have goals outside of sports, too. We are not just athletes. We are human beings. There is more outside of tennis. I really believe in the past couple years I have found my purpose.
I realised I was lucky enough to set up my family financially. I started thinking: I know I am set, and my family is good. But isn’t life about more than that? What about those kids who are where I was not that long ago?
Ten years ago I thought it would be amazing just to see the stadium they named after you at the US Open. To even walk into Arthur Ashe Stadium would have been amazing for me back then, forget playing there and competing at the highest level. I remember getting a little watery in 2014 when I got to play at Madison Square Garden. I was a 16-year-old kid from College Park, Maryland, the son of two immigrant parents warming up the World’s Most Famous Arena for Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Remember how nuts it was when you played John McEnroe there? It is still crazy.
Two years ago I made the Australian Open quarter-finals and did LeBron James’ celebration. The guy is one of the best basketball players ever and he commented on my Instagram. I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ Isn’t that crazy? He’s a childhood hero and he knows who I am! Those things inspire me. I have had little kids come up to me and say they want to be like Frances Tiafoe. That blows me away every time.
But that’s why it’s about more than just setting up my family for life. What about those kids? I want to help them write their stories right the first time. If there are kids out there who do not think they can achieve their dreams, I want to change that. I really believe success is in everyone. I want to paint a picture for them that they did not know was possible. I want to help them make that a reality.
You showed so many of us the way, and now I want to pay it forward. I want to help these kids understand that they need to find their passion and just go absolutely crazy and be obsessed with it. I found mine and I get to live my dream every day.
Most importantly I want them to be good people first. You always treated everybody well and with respect. I want to keep passing that down through the generations. If years down the road people say Frances Tiafoe was a hell of a person first and an athlete second, I will be really happy.
Obviously, I want people to remember me as a great tennis player, too. I do not want to be one of those guys who was just a good tennis player and was forgotten. I want to have the whole package, on and off the court. I was lucky enough to have people like you prove that it is possible.
I know I have to keep working every day. I have been lucky enough to make a living. Now, it is time to make a life. You did more than your share for the world. I promise I will always do mine.
Editor's Note: This letter was originally published in January 2021.