When I was little, I knew where my parents were from, but I didn’t really know.
Do you get what I’m saying?
Like, yeah, I’m Frances Tiafoe, son to two parents from Sierra Leone. But what does that actually mean? Where my parents are from isn’t just really, really far away — life over there is also completely different.
My parents left for the U.S. in the ’90s to escape a civil war that took almost 100,000 lives and displaced over 2 million people. They talked about the country all the time, but it’s one thing to hear about what life was like … it’s a whole other thing to see it.
When I was eight years old, I went to Sierra Leone for about a month and a half with my mom for vacation, and also to learn about where my parents were from. There’s nothing really that can prepare you for … the culture shock, I guess you could call it, of going to a country like that. The first thing that sticks out in my memory is the poverty. It’s a really beautiful place, but I remember realizing that I had never seen so many dirt roads, shack-like houses and just a lack of things that we here in the U.S. take for granted. This was around 2006, so the world was a different place then. And the Internet wasn’t the same either, so it wasn’t like I could just get online and prepare myself for what Sierra Leone would be like.
But the thing that I always think back to about that trip is the people.
After we had spent some time there, I realized that they were so happy. They were happy with what they had and nobody ever really seemed upset about their situation, even if they were struggling to get by. They showed incredible courage in the face of adversity to have survived the civil war that ravaged the country.
They were honest and expressive. Everyone was very comfortable in their own skin. There was also just such a real sense of community there. Like they had each other’s backs, you feel me?
I think it took me some time to understand how where my parents were born has impacted me, how it’s impacted them. But as I get a bit older, I’m seeing it now.
And now, our country, the United States — the place that took my parents in and where I was born and raised — needs some of that sense of community. We need some of the togetherness.
I know all about it, because it runs deep in my family’s blood.
My dad, man — I’m lucky. He’s a good man. And I’m blessed because I got some of his drive … his will to get something done. Most people around the tennis world know my story now. How I spent some nights sleeping at the tennis center that my dad helped build in College Park, Maryland. He was a day laborer at the Junior Tennis Champions Center when it started construction in 1999. Toward the end of the building of the JTCC, he moved into an open office, which he lived out of for a few years. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. On nights when my mom was working the night shift, my brother, Franklin, and I would go stay with Dad. He’d sleep on the massage table so that Franklin and I could have the couches.
We need some of the togetherness. I know all about it, because it runs deep in my family’s blood.
Dad always loved tennis, and he worked around the clock at the JTCC so he could keep that job, and so Franklin and I could have a place to play the game we’d fallen in love with.
I realize now how hard he worked, and how much he sacrificed, to allow my brother and me to chase our dreams and have the life he and my mom wanted us to have — the one they couldn’t have in Sierra Leone.
Mom worked as a nurse practitioner and we spent most of our time living with her on the other side of town. I think, as a kid, you know having your mom be a nurse is a pretty cool job. Any time you got sick she was right there to make you better, real quick. And any time we’d cough, Mom would be sure to make sure we were all right.
But … man … fast-forward to 2020 and having your mom be a nurse … it’s scary. You know, when the pandemic first broke out I was just like, Mom, you gotta sit this one out. Please.
When we were little, my brother and I went with her into the nursing home for the annual “Take Your Kid to Work Day” at our school. And, though I don’t remember a whole lot, I do remember the seriousness and passion that she worked with.
As a professional athlete, I think a lot of fans see us and see the hard work and the focus we put in and sort of put us on a pedestal, when those same attributes are a part of all different types of work. That “zone” that I have to get into when I’m down a set or something like that? That exists for my mom when things are getting chaotic in the nursing home and you need a calm head to make decisions that, in the end, are way more important than a tennis match.
And that’s why I wanted to write this. Because I feel like we’re losing our way a little bit as a country when it comes to the pandemic. Right away I knew firsthand how dangerous COVID-19 is because my mom told me about it all the time. And when I asked her not to go in for work, she didn’t listen. Because she loves to work. Because she and Dad don’t really know the meaning of a break. Because they got your back.
I feel like we’re losing our way a little bit as a country when it comes to the pandemic.
There are a lot of people out there right now, who didn’t come from much … who don’t have much … who don’t ask for much … who are bustin’ their asses to help us. My mom included. And we aren’t doing enough to help them. We need that sense of COMMUNITY.
Like, man, we’re a big country … but we’re not that big. We can be together in this.
That feeling I had in Sierra Leone, of realizing how happy people were over there, how unselfish they were in their way of life. I understand now that they may have been financially poor, but they were really rich. You feel me? Their lives were rich.
I try to remember that often.
Through tennis, I’ve been given the opportunity to work hard and achieve my goals. And from that came a chance to use the privilege that I now have as an athlete with a platform to do some good in the world — to have some other people’s backs.
So that’s what I’m trying to do right now.
My mom is telling me to social distance, wash my hands and wear a mask … so I’m passing along the message. You better do those things, too. Don’t make my mom mad.
Because I already did that, and it wasn’t very fun.
Yes, I tested positive for COVID-19 in early July. I was in Atlanta for the All-American Team Cup event that was taking place down there, and after one of my matches the on-site doctor came up to me and said I needed to be tested. I’d been through the process the week before, so I was used to it.
It was one of the rapid tests. Just a nasal swab and 15 minutes later they have your results. I was just chillin’, getting ready to go back to the hotel, when the doc came to the locker room and told me I had tested positive.
I was like, “Man … you gotta run that back. There’s no way.”
Things just moved quickly after that. I had to head back home to Maryland to be with my brother to quarantine. He had tested positive as well, so we went into isolation together.
And, man, I did not want to tell my mom. She was one of the last people I ended up telling because I knew she was going to be disappointed and concerned. I thought about having my agent tell her because … well, y’all know what moms are like when you’re sick, right?
But when I did get around to telling her, she understood that I had done everything I possibly could to be cautious and safe when I had to go out in public. There are so many ways to contract the virus that, even if you do everything you can — even if you keep your bubble tight — COVID-19 doesn’t really care.
When I was in quarantine, I started to feel the symptoms. It wasn’t too dissimilar from a regular flu, at least for me, but I’m fortunate enough to be young, in athletic shape and have had someone like my mom to help me recover properly.
I didn’t leave the house for nearly three weeks. Franklin and I played some video games, watched Netflix and worked out in the backyard. We waited for Mom to drop off medicine and meals outside the door, and we constantly gave her updates on how we were feeling.
It was like being a kid again, stuck at home from school.
But I know that for so many their experiences weren’t like mine — and that many others won’t be as fortunate as I was.
This thing is real. It’s scary, and it’s real. I knew that before, of course. But having had it, knowing how easily I had contracted it … it really just hammered home how critical it is that we protect ourselves. And how important it is for us to listen to those who are trying to protect us.
I’m begging you, we have to listen — we have to follow instructions.
Do it for yourself, do it for your neighbor.
Do it for my mom.
Do it for all of us.