Frances Tiafoe
Frances Tiafoe Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Frances Tiafoe has given up trying to figure out how he contracted the novel coronavirus that led to a positive COVID-19 test last month. He could have gotten it at the airport in late June, when he flew from Florida, where he was training, to Georgia, to compete at the All-American Team Cup tennis tournament outside Atlanta. Or he could’ve come in contact with someone while out getting food in the days prior to his match.

“It could’ve been anything,” Tiafoe says.

The positive COVID-19 test on July 3 limited Tiafoe’s return to competitive tennis. He’s only played one match since the professional tennis tour shut down in March due to the pandemic, and the unpredictable nature of the 2020 season comes at a pivotal point in his young career. Just last year, the 22-year-old from Hyattsville had a breakout season, reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and a career-high ranking of No. 29 in the world. 

He’s since struggled to capture the same success, but now, after quarantining at his mother’s house in Beltsville for more than two weeks with his twin brother, Franklin, and subsequently testing negative for COVID-19, Tiafoe is back on the court—again—and eager to test his fitness. Later this month, he will be playing at the Western & Southern Open, followed by the U.S. Open, both scheduled to be held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City without fans. 

“I’m locked in, so I’ll be out there,” Tiafoe says. “I’ve been hitting, sweating, just trying to get ready.”

Not all of his peers share his enthusiasm to resume playing this month. Even as the United States Tennis Association insists that it is taking the necessary steps to mitigate the risk of infection, some top players, including the women’s world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty of Australia, have withdrawn from the American tournaments, citing their discomfort with the risks of traveling during the pandemic. Rafael Nadal, the 19-time Grand Slam winner and defending U.S. Open champion, also decided to skip the tournaments. “The situation is very complicated worldwide, the COVID-19 cases are increasing, it looks like we still don’t have control of it,” Nadal wrote on Twitter.

In recent months, Nick Kyrgios, an outspoken and polarizing pro ranked 40th in the world, has criticized players, including Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s player who tested positive for COVID-19 in June, for not taking the pandemic more seriously. In a video published by Uninterrupted, Kyrgios called out “selfish” players who haven’t been adhering to social distancing guidelines while adding that he has “no problem” with those who do choose to play at the U.S. Open, as long as they act “appropriately … and safely.”

“We can rebuild our sport and the economy, but we can never recover lives lost,” Kyrgios said. “Tennis players, you have to act in the interest of each other and work together. You can’t be dancing on tables, money grabbing your way around Europe, or trying to make a quick buck hosting an exhibition. That’s just so selfish. Think of the other people for once … To those players that have been observing the rules and acting selflessly, I say good luck to you.”

In June, Serena Williams committed to playing at the U.S. Open, becoming one of the highest profile players to give the tournament a vote of confidence. Djokovic is also set to play. Tiafoe believes that players will take their roles seriously and points to other professional leagues that have been successful hosting events.

The U.S. Open, scheduled to run from Aug. 31 to Sept. 13, will operate in a “bubble” similar to what the NBA and NHL have done. Line calls will be made electronically on all courts except those at the two biggest arenas, and there will be a limited number of people allowed on-site. The New York Times reports that players who leave the tournament “bubble” without permission from Stacey Allaster, the U.S. Open tournament director, or the tournament’s chief medical officer will be removed from the event and fined. Fans will not be in attendance.

“These guys, they’re professionals, hopefully they can run it at a high level,” Tiafoe says of the U.S. Open. “Obviously the NBA is able to do it, obviously baseball is struggling. It’s tough … but you hope everyone is [testing] negative going in and everybody quarantines and … everyone does the right thing. I don’t see why this tournament can’t go [on]. I think guys want to compete, and a lot of people want to do what they love again.”

Just a week before the professional tennis tour shut down in March, Tiafoe hired former Top 10 pro Wayne Ferreira as a coach in addition to Zack Evenden, his close friend and coach since 2017. Ferreira, a South African who currently lives in South Carolina but is moving to the San Francisco Bay Area soon, joined Tiafoe’s team right before the ATP Challenger Tour tournament in Indian Wells, California, where Tiafoe reached the round of 16. 

Tiafoe estimates that he’s missed about five weeks of tennis this year. Instead of playing on the court, he’s used the forced time away to work on his fitness. 

“There was no tennis in the early days,” Evenden says. “During the lockdown … if he wanted to play pickleball or go and hit with his girlfriend or his brother, then he would do that, but there was no pressure on tennis in the early days during lockdown. It was all fitness based and all body maintenance just to keep him prepared for if things changed on a short notice.”

Now ranked No. 81 in the world, Tiafoe headed into Atlanta with confidence in the work he put in with his coaches. He met up with Ferreira about a week before the start of the tournament in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. Both of them got tested the day before they arrived and received negative results, Ferreira says. Each time they entered the facility at Life Time Athletic and Tennis, they received temperature checks.

So when Tiafoe had a headache and suffered from diarrhea shortly before his first match against Sam Querrey, he didn’t think much of it.

“I didn’t know having diarrhea was one of the symptoms,” he says. 

Tiafoe would end up beating the 45th-ranked Querrey in the exhibition event, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), under the scorching Georgia sun, but afterward, due to fatigue, he decided to take an instant COVID-19 test. It showed up positive. The result came on the heels of other pro tennis players, including Djokovic, contracting COVID-19 after playing in exhibition events in Croatia and Serbia that were attended by unmasked fans sitting in close proximity to each other.

Tiafoe took another test the following day, which eventually confirmed the initial positive test.

“I was like, you gotta be kidding me,” he says. “A lot of things were going through my head. I was like … obviously [the news is] going to blow up, how am I going to get out of Atlanta, my brother probably has it as well.”

Franklin also tested positive (which he says he found out 10 days later), and after quarantining in their hotel room that Saturday, Ferreira drove the two up to South Carolina on Sunday, where their mother, Alphina Kamara, met them and drove them the rest of the way to Beltsville. Like Tiafoe, Ferreira is unsure where and how the brothers contracted the virus. 

“We didn’t go anywhere,” says Ferreira, who tested positive for COVID-19 himself in March after picking up his son from college. “We went to [the] court and practiced and ran to the house, and he stayed inside, so we don’t quite know how he got it, and possibly he got it when he flew up there, but it was kind of weird.”

According to the Associated Press, tournament officials said they deep cleaned and sanitized the event site and alerted people who may have been in contact with Tiafoe. The event concluded as scheduled on July 5, with no additional positive tests announced.

While at home, Tiafoe has limited himself to eating home-cooked meals and says they’ve taken precautions to keep Kamara, a licensed practical nurse, safe.

“If we were upstairs, she was downstairs,” he says. “If we were downstairs, she was upstairs. We spent a lot of time in the basement. We wore a mask. She wiped down anywhere we sat. We didn’t really have any close contact during two weeks. We were just being smart.”

Eventually, Tiafoe made his way back to the tennis court after testing negative. He hit with his brother at the nearby neighborhood tennis courts secluded by trees, and occasionally Ferreira joined to guide practices.

“He’s been working so hard, he feels like things are improving so much, and he wants to start implementing them on matches,” Ferreira says. “I think … everyone’s excited to get going again.”

Only Ferreira will make the trip to New York with Tiafoe as of now. But those close to Tiafoe are eager to see him back on the court, even if it’s just on TV. Both Ferreira and Evenden are confident that Tiafoe will come back even stronger from his latest setback. 

“He’s looking great,” Evenden says. “As you saw in Atlanta, he had COVID and he beat Querrey. That shows you right there where his level is at.”