Seven days before Federer, Sharapova, and company rolled into town for the NASDAQ-100 Open, twenty-year-old tennis prodigy Ahsha Rolle walked slowly from Crandon Park Court #14.
After showing off her 115 mph serve, blistering groundstrokes, and wicked slice, Rolle calmly surveyed the construction site surrounding her: Noisy workers were busily erecting grandstands and polishing corporate logos. A Warsteiner beer pavilion was sprouting just steps away from the court where she has practiced for the past year.
At five feet eight, 150 pounds, with muscular arms and legs, Rolle is arguably the most promising Miami-Dade talent since Mary Joe Fernandez was a perennial top tenner in the early Nineties. Yet as the world's best pros headed for Key Biscayne, the African-American player was going in the other direction.
"Tomorrow it's Redding," she said, referring to the Northern California town where tournament prize money totals $10,000, a fraction of NASDAQ's $3 million-plus purse. Moments later she pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her tennis bag. "Then there's Hammond, Louisiana; Jackson [Mississippi]; Pelham, Alabama. I need 60 points," she concluded, flashing a glance at the looming stadium, "to get into the big tournaments."
Life in the minor league of tennis is nothing new to Rolle. She's been doing it full-time for two years now, and though she doesn't mind tennis's unglamorous underbelly the Comfort Inns, the small crowds, the low pay (winning Redding equals $3000) it all must end. Soon.
Ahsha's voice softens when she talks about her parents' sacrifice. Sharon and Leon Rolle, who have bankrolled her thus far spending hundreds of thousands of dollars are tapped out. Six months ago, she explained, Mom cashed in her 401K. "They've already burned through their retirement for me," she said. "I need to win."
This fate, according to Don Petrine, long-time tennis pro at Pinecrest's Royal Palm Tennis Club, is typical. "The harsh reality is you can't play this game professionally if you're middle-class. It will crush you financially."
The Rolle family is middle-class. They own a four-bedroom, 3000-square-foot house in a comfortable Miami Shores neighborhood. Ahsha's father is a retired lawyer. Her mother, also now retired, was a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company.
But that middle-class comfort existed before Ahsha and younger sister Tiya, who followed her sister into the game, developed an interest in the sport.
It all began innocently enough in the summer of 1994, when nine-year-old Ahsha peered out of the Miami Shores rec center window and saw folks playing tennis next to the railroad tracks. Then Sharon and Leon sent her to a local pro. She took an immediate liking to the sport and soon was a nightly fixture on the courts at Miami's Moore Park, on NW 36th Street in Allapattah. By the time she was twelve years old, Ahsha was ranked 104th in the state.
To compete with the state's top-flight talents, Ahsha began making weekend trips to Orlando and Tampa. But that wasn't enough. To reach the next level, a pro advised the Rolles, Ahsha needed a full-time coach.
In summer 1996, the Rolles got extremely lucky. Gibson Beautelus, a former star player at Miami Jackson Senior High, who was teaching kids at Morningside Park, agreed to coach the twelve-year-old full-time for free. (Leon estimates this saved the family at least $10,000 a year.) Beautelus worked with Ahsha for six hours each day. Within four months, her ranking soared to fourth in the state.
But then the Rolles learned a maxim about tennis: "The better you get, the more expensive the game becomes," Leon said. Ahsha was no longer satisfied with regional competition; she was a national player. To raise her ranking, she had to compete with top juniors: the Easter Bowl in Palm Springs, the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, the Super National Clay Courts, the ITF grass courts in Philly, the ITF hard courts in Jersey. "Those are musts," said Leon, "and there's the Peach Bowl. And they're kids. You have to travel with them.
"It cost us 30 grand a year conservatively," Leon added. "And we did that for four years."
When she was in her late teens, Ahsha's ranking wavered around fifteenth in the nation in her age group. She was recruited by colleges across the country. Nearly 50 inquired, including Florida, Georgia Tech, even Harvard.
But Ahsha was too hooked on the game.
"My goal with Ahsha, and all kids, is to get them the scholarship," Coach Beautelus said. "She was there." Her parents were there too excited about her college options.
Ahsha insisted on going pro, though, hitting the circuit full-time in 2004. She played 26 tournaments that year, logged hundreds of thousands of air miles. Her ranking inched up. She ended the year in the 600s.
But money again was a problem. Aside from an equipment deal with Wilson (rackets and strings), Ahsha didn't attract any sponsors. "I was just thinking they would come to us," Leon said. "We heard about these girls making two million up front, but the big companies never called. They seemed to go for the young European girls."
In addition to the steep travel costs of the circuit "it's at least $60,000 a year," Leon said, "double that of the junior tour" the family had to, at one point, invest in a "hitting partner." Beautelus, working pro bono, couldn't leave Miami regularly. So they hired a pro for $3000 a month to travel with Ahsha.
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.
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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."