Farewell, 2021 — Interview: Ashley Lahey — Must-click women’s tennis links
The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, December 21, 2021
Happy Tuesday, everyone!
How is it the last Tennis Tuesday of 2021!? For the holiday, I’m vacationing in Brevard, NC right outside of Asheville where my parents retired this year, but I’m excited to close 2021 out a little bit in the style of our awesome WoSo maven, Annie!
There was only one WTA tournament — the Abu Dhabi WTA 500 event, captured by Aryna Sabalenka. Because of COVID, the Australian Open qualifying event was held in Dubai, which I personally was a big fan of. Again, if the Australian Open is going to be called the Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific, they need to incorporate more than just Australia. 72 players were forced to hard quarantine after positive cases erupted from their Tennis Australia-charted flights. Many of the players were incredibly insensitive about the COVID protocols, including Paula Badosa, who tested positive while in Australia. Madison Keys and Amanda Anisimova were among the players who missed the Australia swing due to positive cases
The Australian Open…..in February? Even in December, it’s crazy that February had tennis in Australia. Three WTA 500 events were held to open out the month, including a special event — the Grampians Trophy — held for those in hard quarantine to play. At the Australian Open, Naomi Osaka saved match points against Garbine Muguruza en route to knocking out Serena Williams and surprise finalist Jennifer Brady. The second week of the tournament had a WTA 250 on-site and I think that would be a fun welcome addition to all of the other Slams.
March was a return to a “normal” tennis calendar, except that the BNP Paribas Open was postponed until the Fall. The Middle East delivered some stellar tennis with Petra Kvitova taking the crown in Doha, while Muguruza knocked out a surprising and inspired Barbora Krejcikova. Young stars Clara Tauson and Leylah Fernandez captured their first WTA titles, while Sara Sorribes Tormo also nabbed her debut trophy. At the WTA 1000 Miami Open, Bianca Andreescu clawed — and I mean CLAWED — her way to the final before running out of juice and retiring with injury to Barty in the final.
Charleston hosted two weeks of tournaments — a WTA 500 followed by a WTA 250, which saw Astra Sharma come back from the brink to defeat Ons Jabeur and win her first WTA title. Camila Osorio stunned her local Bogota crowd to basically come out of nowhere and win her maiden WTA title, as well. Vaccines were becoming more distributed to players at tournaments to help combat COVID. The Billie Jean King Cup playoffs were also held to determine the final teams for the end-of-the-year finals. Another highlight was highlighting Brittany Collens’ fight against the NCAA to keep her place in history.
Iga Swiatek captured the WTA 1000 in Rome, which wasn’t the surprise. It was her 6-0, 6-0 demolition over Karolina Pliskova in the final. I almost forgot that happened. Simona Halep injured her leg in her semifinal and would have to miss a few months of action, including defending her Wimbledon title. More first-time WTA titleists emerged with Badosa winning Belgrade and Krejcikova capturing Strasbourg. However, there would be more stunning play from Krejcikova, who would go on to win the singles and doubles titles at the French Open. Roland Garros was full of surprises — including finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, semifinalists Maria Sakkari and Tamara Zidansek, but also the outlandish media basically fighting Osaka causing the Japanese star withdrawing following her first round due to it. The University of Texas captured the NCAA Team title, while Emma Navarro and Elizabeth Scotty/Makenna Jones left the USTA National Campus with the singles and doubles titles, individually.
Grass is back! COVID shut down the tour and cancelled Wimbledon for the first time since WWII, so seeing tennis on the luscious lawn was fantastic to see. Liudmila Samsonova powered through the field to win her first WTA title as a qualifier at the WTA 500 in Berlin, while Jabeur made Arabic history with her debut win in Birmingham. Jelena Ostapenko and Angelique Kerber showed glimpses of what brought them Grand Slam glory with title victories, but the return of Wimbledon showcased how versatile Ashleigh Barty is. The Australian captured the title on the 50th anniversary of Evonne Goolagong’s historic victory, which seemed pretty fitting. June also saw some concrete rumblings of a potential WTA-ATP merger, at least when it came to the commercial property of the game. There’s still no signature on the dotted line, so we continue to wait. Speaking of rumblings, some wildcard named Emma Raducanu had the world whispering at the All-England Club. Hmmm….
First-time WTA winners continued to explode in July. Elena-Gabriela Ruse, Zidansek, Danielle Collins and Maryna Zanevska left WTA 250 tournaments in Europe as champions. Krejcikova took home the title in her native Prague on hardcourts to continue her French Open momentum. However, July had all eyes in Tokyo as the postponed-2020 Tokyo Olympics finally took place. Osaka, basically the face of the Games, was knocked out in the first round alongside Barty. Belinda Bencic would emerge victorious, outlasting Marketa Vondrousova in the final. Elina Svitolina would claw back against Elena Rybakina for the bronze. Bencic would grab another medal in women’s doubles, taking the silver alongside Viktorija Golubic with the Swiss duo losing to Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova. The best story, in my opinion, were surprise bronze medalists Luisa Stefani and Laura Pigossi, who went from sneaking into the draw to the podium. In mixed doubles, Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Vesnina and Barty went gold, silver and bronze, respectively.
The summer North American hardcourt season is my absolute favorite and yes, I’m biased. Collins kicked off the month with another WTA title at the 500 event in San Jose before Camila Giorgi shocked everyone by capturing the WTA 1000 in Montreal. Barty continued to impress and show the world why she was No. 1 with her 1000 victory in Cincinnati. I got to travel up to Cleveland for Tennis in the Land, which was captured by Anett Kontaveit, as well as a trip to the US Open. Now New York was all about Raducanu. It’s actually still incredible to reflect on. The Brit became the first qualifier in history — male or female — to not only make a Grand Slam final, but capture the title. Until that point, she hadn’t even won a WTA main draw match, just wins at Slams. Her finals win over Fernandez really showed how deep and youthful the WTA is. Desirae Krawczyk also penciled her name in history with three consecutive Slam titles in mixed doubles to put all eyes on her in Australia.
I don’t want to say September was a slow month, but it kind of was. There definitely seemed to be a bit of a post-US Open hangover, with only five WTA tournaments being held. The biggest news of the month was that Shenzhen would no longer be hosting the 2021 WTA Finals because of COVID and Guadalajara, Mexico would be the host. Kontaveit and Mugurza each captured a WTA 500 event, while Jasmine Paolini won her first WTA crown, joining Tauson and Alison Van Uytvanck as champions of WTA 250 events. One of my favorite pieces I wrote for Tennis Tuesday was an open letter to Serena Williams in light of her 40th birthday. From her reaction to leaving Rod Laver Arena to her final match of 2021 — a first-round retirement in Wimbledon, I felt it was necessary to show my appreciation publicly while she’s still active. I continued my “traveling” for The IX, even though this time it was only 10 minutes up the road to the WTA 125k in Columbus, Ohio. WTA tennis needs more Midwest in their lives and I’m glad between Ohio and the three Chicago WTA tournaments, we’re getting that.
Badosa was the Queen of the Desert, taking home the BNP Paribas Open over Victoria Azarenka in perhaps the best match of 2021. In 2021 first-time titleists, American Ann Li etched her name on the list at the WTA 250 in Tenerife, while Donna Vekic finally lifted a trophy for the first time in 4 years. However, October became the race to the WTA Finals Guadalajara and it was alllllll Kontaveit. The Estonian reached the quarterfinals in Indian Wells and had to win back-to-back titles at the WTA 500 in Moscow and WTA 250 in Cluj-Napoca to qualify — and she did, just knocking off Jabeur for the final spot. It was an incredible feat by Kontaveit to secure her berth in Mexico, especially having to face Halep in Romania in a make-it-or-break-it environment.
The roller coaster of a season finally came to an end in Guadalajara, which saw mariachi bands in the mix of a full crowd. Many were concerned about the tight turnaround for Mexico to host, but I’m glad I wasn’t. I wrote about how Mexico loves their tennis and I’ve had friends play $15k in front of a sold-out crowd. I really hope Guadalajara, even though in high-altitude, can host the WTA Finals again. I’d love to see what the can do with a full year of planning. Muguruza won the title, taking out Kontaveit in the final. She always plays well in Mexico and was my pick to win it all, only losing one match the entire week — a third-set tiebreak loss to Pliskova. While women’s tennis was peaking in Mexico, Peng Shuai shared on Weibo her own #MeToo story against a former high-ranking politician in China. What was more concerning was that she hadn’t been seen in weeks by the public and when she was “seen,” it was incredibly manipulated by the Chinese media. The tennis world, then the entire would gathered behind the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag and WTA CEO Steve Simon had to figure out how to navigate player health/safety against the tour’s biggest benefactor. Lastly, King Richard, the Williams sisters love letter to their dad starring Will Smith, debuted in theaters and on HBOMax. Seriously, go watch it.
Usually a slow month in terms of the off-season, but Simon had other plans. He announced that Chinese tournaments will be suspended for the 2022 season, along with the WTA 250 in Hong Kong. It was inspiring to see the WTA put their foot down and choose their players over profit. It was even better to see the tennis world rally behind the tour. The ITF took their time before also doing the same for their 2022 tournaments, but the ATP is still dragging their feet. So much for Tennis United, right? The WTA Player Awards were voted on and announced and I got to be a voting member for the media this year. Barty, Krejcikova, Sinakova, Raducanu and Carla Suarez Navarro took home awards, while Kristie Ahn was voted by players for her service throughout the season.
I’m excited to see what unfolds in 2022. Be sure to tune in after the New Year with what storylines I think we should keep an eye out for. Now, onto the links!
This Week in Women’s Tennis
This week’s must-read is Jon Wetheim’s dive into how the WTA continues to deliver in wake of all of the Peng Shuai situation. Shuai was recently spotted and spoke with a Singapore reporter and the entire exchange is incredibly uncomfortable. Honestly, I got the vibe she had an earpiece in and was being fed lines. For a full timeline of the situation, click here.
Two public votes went in favor of the WTA’s biggest stars: Emma Raducanu was named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, while Simona Halep took home wtatennis.com’s 2021 Singles Shot of the Year.
At the Open BLS de Limonges, Alison Van Uytvanck captured her third singles title of the year and second at the WTA level with a straight-set win over Ana Bogdan. In doubles, Monica Niculescu and Vera Zvonareva took home the WTA 125k event, taking out local hopes Estelle Cascino and Jessika Ponchet in two sets. My highlight was their signage geared towards the Peng Shuai situation:
Universal Tennis announced the beginning of their Collegiate Ambassador program, where players will be able to market Paid Hits, participate in more UTR Pro Tennis Tour tournaments and more thanks to the new NIL laws. Three of the first four players are female: Texas’ Peyton Stearns, Auburn’s Carolyn Ansari and UCLA’s Taylor Johnson.
In case you missed, the wtatennis.com team recapped their top quotes for the year as part of 2021-wrap coverage.
Madison Keys shared a GoFundMe for Kylie Ossege, a 17-year-old tennis player at Oxford High School, who was injured in the shooting this month:
Natalia Vikhlyantseva won’t be in Australia as her vaccine isn’t among the ones allowed to enter the country. It will be curious to see how many withdrawals will be due to their vaccine choice. If this is the case, players should be able to keep their 2021 points.
David Kane wrote three blurbs as part of Tennis’ 30-Love, as well as this piece with former Top 100 player Ahsha Rolle, who’s recently taken over the NYJTL program :
- Profiling GOAT junior/college tennis reporter Colette Lewis
- Jamea Jackson leveraging her professional experience for the future generation at the USTA.
- Taylor Townsend taking advantage of her maternity leave.
Francesca Di Lorenzo graduated from THE Ohio State University, adding her name to the list of WTA players earning their degree in 2021:
Tweet of the Week
Today, we’re doing an Instagram post of our Five at The IX, Ashley Lahey and her fundraiser for the Restore Health Uganda clinic. Join me in donating towards her fundraiser, which are linked in our interview below.
Five at the IX: Ashley Lahey
Ashley Lahey is a professional tennis player currently ranked No. 637 in singles and No. 654 in doubles, with career-highs of Nos. 449 and 567, respectively. On the ITF World Tour, she’s captured one singles and one doubles title. A 2021 graduate of Pepperdine University, she led the Waves to their first-ever NCAA team final her final year. Individually, she claimed No. 1 rankings in both singles and doubles, while also reaching the NCAA singles final in 2018. She was a three-time All-American and 2020 ITA Senior Player of the Year. She sits down to talk about college, turning pro, as well as her fundraiser for a health clinic in Kisiita, Uganda. You can follow her on Instagram or visit her fundraiser website.
Was college tennis what you expected? What were your standout moments and challenges in college?
College was so much more than I ever could have dreamed of. I was originally only planning on going for a year, developing my game with the help of the coaches there, and then turning pro, but that plan changed quickly. For one thing, after taking a general chemistry course, I became enthralled with the magical world of science, and quickly developed a hunger for learning more that could only be satiated with staying in school and taking more classes. Furthermore, playing for a team was one of the most fulfilling and wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. At first it was hard to adjust my individualistic and self-centered mindset. I came into school at 16 years old, and unfortunately, one of the attributes of immaturity can be an egotistical worldview. That doesn’t fly well in a team environment. Thankfully, my coaches were patient with me and slowly taught me what it means to be a team player. Playing tennis for Pepperdine will always be one of the highlights of my life and an experience that I will never forget. It’s impossible to describe the joy of stepping out on the court with a team of girls you love like your own family, coaches who have stuck with you through every peak and valley, and wearing a jersey that says the name of a school that has become your home. There’s nothing like it, and through all the ups and downs, I am eternally grateful to everyone who made it what it was.
There’s a lot of uncertainty on the ITF World Tour because of COVID. How are you navigating everything your first few months? What are your 2022 and long-term goals professionally?
COVID has made playing and traveling more difficult for everyone, but the ITF tour has done an excellent job of trying to continue play in as safe of a manner as possible. Now that most people are vaccinated, it is a little bit better than it was a year ago, but we still have to take expensive COVID tests everywhere we go and stay on the lookout for travel restrictions.
Other than that, however, play has resumed as normal. I’m in a great training situation with a coach I love, and I am excited to see what we can accomplish together on the tour. I have no goals, hopes, or expectations as far as ranking goes. My only focus now is giving everything I have to the journey and facing this new year of pro tennis with patience, gratitude, dedication, and joy. I play my best tennis when I remember that it is a gift to be able to pursue this dream and keep my focus on the beauty of the process. Focusing on results sucks the life out of the game for me, making me miserable and incredibly tight under pressure.
Having said that, I am fully committed to and focused on professional tennis right now, and I plan on playing for at least a few years before I reevaluate!
Now that you’re done with school and playing full-time, what’s your normal day like? What have been the biggest culture shocks leaving college?
COVID took a huge hit on my game. In the 2019-2020 season, I was playing the best tennis of my life and felt completely ready to turn pro. The COVID break gave me the chance to study for and take the MCAT, which I am grateful for, but a year without consistent coaching or tournaments unfortunately sunk my level quite a bit.
Getting back to Pepperdine for a 5th season helped me get back in the rhythm of things, but due to a few injuries, we ran out of runway before I was ready to take off. I was thus thrown onto the pro tour feeling very low on confidence, devastated that we had lost the championship, confused because I had just been torn from my home and family of the past 5 years, and just overall unprepared to take on the challenges of playing professional tennis.
Pro tennis is a massive culture shock. In college, everything was planned for me, all I had to do was show up and work hard I would improve. In addition, I had an incredible spiritual community there, amazing friends, and was taking classes I loved. Pepperdine has prepared me for life in many ways, but unfortunately it also coddled and sheltered me in a perfect bubble world, so leaving it was excruciating.
On the tour without a team, coach, or manager I really struggled to stay positive. It felt like every week I was playing worse and losing more confidence, and reached a point of unparalleled frustration with the sport. I didn’t know if I was ever going to recuperate my level, and I desperately missed my team and my coaches. Worse still, my perspective became ridiculously perverted. Rather than being grateful for the chance to play, trusting the process, and maintaining faith in God’s plan for me. Rather than pursuing my goals with passion, gratitude, and patience, I played with a sense of entitlement and frustration and focused only on results, which weren’t coming, which further annoyed me.
Thankfully, my college teammate Mayar Sherif, who has always looked after me and has one of the most generous hearts you’ve ever seen, helped me out when I needed it the most. She has been training in Spain since she graduated college, and is crushing it on tour, already up to 62 in the world and rising fast. She let me stay at her apartment in Spain to try working with one of her coach’s friends. Immediately, we clicked. After 2 incredible weeks of training with him, I unfortunately had to return to the States as I had overstayed my European tourist visa.
However, I am back in Spain now doing preseason and it has been incredible. I’m grateful every day for the wonderful team of coaches, trainers, friends, and community that I found here, and I’m excited to see what we can do in 2022.
Can you tell us about the work you’re doing in Kisiita, Uganda? How did it come about and how can people help?
With the mindset I had on tour this last year, every match was miserable. I played so tight and devoid of confidence that I couldn’t even recognize myself as a player anymore. Not only was I playing ridiculously poorly, but the stress pressure I was putting on myself brought out the worst in me, and I was acting like a 12 year old on court, getting jealous of other players’ success, and just completely falling apart mentally. One of the core principles of my life and faith is the ability to face hardship and triumph with dignity, grace, and a demeanor that displays trust in God. I could handle losing matches, but I couldn’t handle losing my values. My faith calls me to try to display qualities that attract people to a life with God, and I knew that the way I was acting was repulsive.
From that low point, it became perfectly clear that my perspective on life had become perverted, and I was entirely too focused on myself, my career, my goals. I contacted Jim Gash, the president of Pepperdine, to see if he knew of any service projects I could participate in. I needed to take a break from tennis and do something for someone else. I was expecting him to suggest I do something like volunteer for the boys and girls club in Malibu, but instead he proposed I go to Uganda.
15 years ago he worked with an organization called Restore International and traveled to Ugandan juvenile prisons to help bring the cases of juveniles to court. Unfortunately, in Uganda, the judicial system is very inefficient, and people can spend decades in prison waiting for a trial. Through this project he met Hillary, an inspiring young boy who came home from school one day to find a police officer waiting to question him about a murder. Though none of them were near the scene when the murder took place, he, his father, and his brother were all imprisoned without a trial. They were incarcerated for two years before Jim Gash and Restore International helped speed the process of having their cases heard and getting them released. Despite the bleakness of his circumstance, Hillary showed astounding leadership, hope, courage, and strength. He took care of his inmates, teaching them school lessons, organizing for a soccer ball to be brought to the prison for them to play with, and advocating for the younger, smaller, boys who were picked on. Gash and the crew were absolutely dumbfounded by this boy, and when he was finally released, they chose to sponsor him in his dreams of becoming a doctor.
13 years later that dream has become a reality. Hillary has just finished medical school and his internship. As a fully licensed doctor, he could easily move to a larger city and make a comfortable living working at a large medical clinic. Instead, he and his wife, who is a nurse, have decided to move to Kisiita, Uganda, a very poor collection of villages in rural Uganda with no access to medical care and open up a clinic there.
The clinic Hillary has opened is already providing this community with better healthcare than it has ever seen, but it is small, understaffed, unsanitary, and doesn’t have access to even basic medical diagnostic and treatment tools. In fact, it doesn’t even have access to running water or a stable supply of electricity. There is much to be done if it is to be transformed into a hospital that meets the needs of the community around it.
Having been there for two weeks, I got to see the otherworldly passion with which Hillary works to serve these people. From 7AM to 11PM he sees a flood of patients, and wakes up in the middle of the night to treat emergency accidents or deliver babies. He is infused with a kind of passion for service and love for people that I have never seen before, fueled by something higher than sleep and food, because he hardly has time for either of those two things. His wife and brother, who also work in the clinic, are cut from the same cloth.
In addition to getting to work with this incredible staff, I got to experience life with the magnificent Kisiitan community. I fell in love with these wonderful people and their happy, loving, playful children. It ripped my heart apart to see people coming into the clinic die from very treatable conditions because Hillary didn’t have access to the tools he needed to save them.
Now, I have my full weight behind the project of fundraising for the clinic. On the website I created, you can see videos of what the clinic looks like now and itemized tables of what it will cost to renovate on the Donations At Work page. You can also read more about the staff on the Meet the Staff and Stories pages. Finally, there is the option to donate to my GoFundMe or to the World Outreach Fund’s site on the Donate page. 100% of donations to the WOF through that link will go to the clinic, and they have promised to match the first $25,000 raised too!
What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and who gave it? If you could go back in time, what would you tell 18-year-old Ashley?
The best piece of advice I have ever received is to build my life on the firm foundation of my faith.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:25-27).
Everything in our lives can be taken away from us in an instant. Even our lives themselves can end at any moment, but no one can ever take away our faith, or the power of love, joy, energy, passion, beauty, and wonder that flows from it.
If I could go back in time, I would tell 18-year-old Ashley that she has unimaginable value and worth, and that that worth lies outside of anything she will ever accomplish. I would then tell her to chase after her dreams with no fear at all, because no failure could ever take away that worth.Thus, she pursue her passions fueled by love and excitement for what she was doing. These energies are much cleaner fuel to burn than the fuel of fear, jealousy, and desire for success, recognition, and acquisition material wealth.
Here’s to hoping I’ll listen to that advice in the years to come!
|By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
|By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
|By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
|By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
|By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
|By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer