July 22, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

LAVAL, Quebec – When you stalk the back courts at tournaments, even during the junior events, sometimes you come across a player who stops you in your tracks enough that you stop and take it all in.

Karolina Muchova was one such player, during Wimbledon qualifying in 2018.

American Alafia Ayeni also was such a player, during the junior event at Wimbledon in 2016.

He was the only Black kid in the draw, he played grass-court tennis the way it should be played. And of course there were the cool shades.

The scrappy 16-year-old from San Diego, Calif. had beaten two top-25 junior players and qualified for his first junior Grand Slam tournament.

And in the first round he drew Ben Draper, who was the ultimate poster boy for British tennis privilege as the son of former LTA president Roger Draper (and big brother to current rising British star Jack Draper). As such, he had a free pass into the event despite his lower ranking.

The first set was a disaster, a quick bagel. And then Ayeni began to battle. He threw himself all over the court. He rushed the net at every opportunity. Down in the second set, he squeaked out the tiebreak. And then, until the very end, he fought until Draper finally prevailed, 6-0, 6-7 (4), 7-5.

The aftermath was tough to watch, as Ayeni was absolutely heartbroken, while Draper accepted all the accolades and hugs from a large group of supporters.

A devastated Alafia Ayeni, then 16, sits in his chair as Ben Draper gets kudos from his friends and supporters during junior Wimbledon in 2016.

That match, played on July 12, 2016, has stayed with me ever since.

Fast Forward Seven Years

So imagine the symmetry ot walking into a $25K ITF in Laval and seeing the same kid, now a grown man of 23.

It was … you guessed it, July 12. Except in 2023. With a lot of water under the bridge.

The electric, forward-thinking game was still there, though.

That boys’ draw at Wimbledon in 2016 was, in hindsight, absolutely stacked.

The No. 1 seed was Stefanos Tsitsipas, who ended up losing to eventual champion Denis Shapovalov in the semifinals. Félix Auger-Aliassime was there, defeated in the quarters by Alex de Minaur.

Tomas Martin Etcheverry and Casper Ruud were unseeded; both lost in the first round. Daniel Altmaier and reigning Roland Garros junior champ Geoffrey Blancaneaux (who had beaten both Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime on the way to that title). Miomir Kecmanovic beat Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the first round.

A year later, Ayeni reached his career junior high of No. 27; he ended his junior stint with a loss to Sebastian Baez in the second round of the US Open juniors.

And then, he went the college route.

Ayeni’s reaction when he went airborne for a 360 … and ended up flat on his back?
“I deserved that.” 😂

Four years at Cornell, which is an Ivy League school, through 2022, when he was named to the All-Ivy League First Team in singles and doubles. More importantly, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Interactive Technology.

He also started a brand called “team3X“, created to “inspire and empower minorities in sport to overcome structural barriers and social stigmas”.

And then last year, he transferred to the powerhouse University of Kentucky squad for a fifth year, where he was working on a certificate in business as well as taking advantage of all that program offers to lay the groundwork for a shot at the pros.

So his professional career, really, has barely begun; he just entered the top 400 a few weeks ago.

Here he is playing his first-round match in Laval; he lost in the quarterfinals (his second match of the day) to eventual champion James Tracy.

On Monday, Ayeni will be on the lush grass of Newport to complete a qualifying match that was suspended Sunday against No. 1 seed Altug Celikbileik of Turkey.

It is only his third match at the ATP level, after a pair of wild cards into the qualifying the last two years at his hometown ATP 250 in San Diego.

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