Frances Tiafoe has been giving America plenty to cheer about ever since 2018, when he won his first career title at Delray Beach. By doing so, he became the youngest American ATP champion since Andy Roddick in 2002 and has gone on to reach the quarter-finals of the 2019 Australian Open, and make a career-high ranking of world No.29.
But it’s the work he’s done off the court that has meant the most to the 23-year-old, and since George Floyd’s death last year, he’s passionately used his platform to drive the Black Lives Matter movement forward. With his girlfriend, women’s US collegiate Ayan Broomfield, he united the Black tennis community by producing a ‘Rackets down, hands up’ video which went viral across social media.
Tiafoe shares his inspiration behind the video, the progression he would like to see in America and his dream of taking a Grand Slam trophy back to Sierra Leone...
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I was at home when I first saw the news about George Floyd. It was crazy - he had a knee on his neck for nine minutes but at the time I didn’t realise what a turning point it would turn out to be. Racism isn’t just a new thing, it’s not something that was just suddenly happening, it’s present every single day - this was just one of the many incidents that happened to be recorded so the world could actually play witness to it.
What stood out the most to me was seeing all the different races come together in that one particular moment, it was big. I think it helped push a lot of guys with access and popularity to get behind it and make it a priority; guys from big organisations like the NFL, NBA and WNBA.
That’s when my girlfriend Ayan and I decided we really wanted to do something - we didn’t know what it was but we knew we had to do something. Normally with social media, everyone has to watch what they say and be more closed about how they feel, but everyone was speaking out and we wanted to seize that opportunity. It wasn’t something to enhance us, it was fully aligned to what we believed in; we just wanted to get our message out there, to use our platform and do our part.
So we put our heads together to see what could be the best way to really make an impact and that’s how we landed on the idea of the video, 'Rackets down, hands up'. Back in 2014, Michael Brown put his hands up, only to still get shot and killed, which spoke volumes, so that’s where our inspiration came from. We wanted to engage as many tennis players as possible but didn’t want to ask too much of them, so this felt like the strongest option because they didn’t have to say or do much. Still though, we were relying on players of really high calibre to appear in this video so it wasn’t easy. I’m friends with some of them but calling on Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka and asking them if they would mind doing it was sort of awkward!
Since then, I’ve spoken to them a few times to see how we can keep the conversation alive. Ultimately for them, it’s all about using your platforms; they’re huge on that. At the end of the day, everyone has a platform, no matter how big or small, so use it. People listen to us for whatever reason so we may as well take advantage of that.
At the end of last year I found out that I’d won the ATP’s Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award, which was big, I can’t lie! At first, I didn’t even know it existed, which made the surprise even sweeter. Speaking out about something I was truly passionate about and realising that the things I was doing were resonating with people, truly meant a lot to me.
But it can’t just stop there. We’ve got to keep pushing forward so we don’t lose any of that momentum. What tournaments like the US Open did in response was great but this is so much bigger than sport.

The US Open celebrates Black and BIPOC artists by transforming front-row seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium

Image credit: Getty Images

I know that there were a ton of NFL and NBA guys going out to schools in low income areas to let kids know that we see and hear them, that we were them too at one point and they aren’t alone; there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s all about uplifting those kids and reinforcing that there’s life outside the circle they’re living in. I’m a big quote guy and something Will Smith once said really stuck with me, “It’s not about where you are, it’s about where you’re going”, and that’s big! It’s all about empowering Black individuals.
I don’t want everyone to be a Serena Williams or a Frances Tiafoe, I just want them to find their own success in whatever shape that comes in. Whatever your lane is - find that lane! But how do we create those lanes? That’s the main conversation. How are we helping more individuals see that they can be anyone they want to be? I don’t know if that’s ploughing a ton of money into schools or putting $50 million in community projects to guarantee transportation, food or even college scholarships. Kids going to college is massive; that experience can change your whole perspective. I’m not saying that everyone has the means to do that but it’s those sort of ideas that we need executing to make real change.
But first we need more people understanding the culture to gain a sense of what it feels like to be a Black individual each and every day. It’s about changing existing mindsets and that’s tough but it goes back to the importance of using our platforms to continue creating more awareness. The more I achieve on the tennis court, the more I hope to achieve off it; the bigger the results, the bigger the platform.

Frances Tiafoe reaches his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the 2019 Australian Open

Image credit: Getty Images

When I think about my career goals, winning a Grand Slam would be the pinnacle and I’ve always had this dream about taking the trophy back to Africa. My parents both emigrated from Sierra Leone and went through a lot to ensure we had a great childhood; both working endless hours and weekends too. So for them to see me do that and bring it back home - I’m talking real home - that’s massive. I would want to get everybody involved in that moment and let all those kids see that it can happen. The struggles they face are real so that would symbolise a lot and it’s just so much bigger than me. I’d love to do well for my community in (Washington) DC, but doing it for Africa, where my parents are from, I know that would mean a lot to them. I feel like my legacy kind of depends on that and what I do for them, so that’s my ultimate goal.
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Follow Frances Tiafoe on Instagram (@bigfoe1998) and Twitter (@FTiafoe).
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