By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By fall 2004 the family was in financial trouble. Leon, suffering from heart problems, was unable to work. Sharon had retired from her job at GlaxoSmithKline. "We were burning through our retirement savings," Leon said. "But Ahsha's game was really developing."
Finally in January 2005, good news arrived a letter from the United States Tennis Association. Ahsha, whose ranking had climbed to 359, had passed the magic number. She was one of the nation's top female players under age 23, thereby qualifying at last for some support from USTA's player development fund. She would receive free coaching and conditioning at the association's player development center on Key Biscayne, as well as minimal financial support for housing and travel.
Almost immediately Ahsha began training daily at Crandon Park with one of the country's top African-American tennis pros, Lori McNeil. And sure enough, within months, she had her break.
The run began in, coincidentally, Miami's Moore Park in the prequalifiers for the NASDAQ in March last year. (The prequalifier gives one player a shot to enter the qualifier, which in turn allows four players a chance to enter the actual tournament.) Playing some of the best tennis in her life, Ahsha won six matches in three days. "Maybe it was the home crowd," she said. "My friends and family were all there."
Though Ahsha was eliminated in the qualifiers first round, her rise continued. A month later, in a clay court tournament in Jackson, Mississippi, she beat the first seed and went to the finals in both singles and doubles. She lost in the final but earned $2000. That month USTA named her Circuit Player of the Week.
Meanwhile the Rolle family continued to spend on their daughter's travel. This past September, Sharon cashed in her 401K. "That's it," Leon said. "Our retirement is gone. We're okay, but we just can't afford to help her like we did."
As her ranking rose throughout the year, Ahsha started reaching the semis and finals of circuit tourneys. She even began qualifying for bigger tourneys including the U.S. Open. At the end of 2005, according to the ATP, she was the 170th ranked player in the world. And for the year she earned $50,000.
The Rolles are beginning to taste it. "One tournament away," Leon said. "If she gets deep in one major tourney, that could do it."
The harsh reality, though, is that many players are on the cusp caught in a tennis purgatory ranked somewhere between 100 and 500. It's difficult to make that leap to land solidly in the Top 100, said Mark Merklein, a recently retired player who spent more than a decade on the circuit. "The travel. The cost. It's not easy," explained Merklein, who never cracked 100 himself, peaking at 160.
What's more, although Ahsha is barely old enough to drink (just turned 21), she isn't, by women's tennis standards, a youngster. Most top players and stars Graf, Capriati, Evert, and Navratilova began their rise as teenagers.
Leon Rolle, though, ever patient, believes his daughter will be a Top 20 player. "At least give her five more years," he said. "These other girls, the Williams sisters, they started when they were young, four and five. Ahsha got a late start."
Two weeks ago, as she lugged her Wilson bag on Key Biscayne, the hulking Crandon Park stadium behind her, Ahsha said she's not looking too far beyond Redding, Jackson, and Pelham. "I need 60 points in the next five tournaments," she said coolly. "That will be enough to get me into the main draw at the French."
"And then," she said, smiling, momentarily reflecting on a life in the tennis major leagues, "even if I lose in Paris in the first round, I'll get $15,000. Even if I lose, that covers my travel expenses."