Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Ayana Akli walks down a narrow hallway, past a large flat-screen TV continuously broadcasting the Tennis Channel, past hundreds of framed photos of young accomplished tennis players, including one of herself, and past a wall display full of newspaper articles and magazine covers devoted to Frances Tiafoe, the hometown kid turned professional tennis star who is the pride of the Junior Tennis Champions Center at College Park.

She has repeated the same trip thousands of times over the past decade while training to become one of the best junior tennis players in the country. Her father, Komi Oliver Akli, is the senior director of the high performance champions program at the center. She considers several people in the photos lining the walls her friends, including Tiafoe, a 20-year-old ranked 39th on the men’s professional tour.

But among the players at JTCC, Akli stands out for forging her own path, one that has often prioritized her other interests. Choosing to attend the University of Maryland is just the latest example of that. The 17-year-old Silver Spring native recently signed a letter of intent to play tennis for the Terps and plans to study civil engineering.

For the next several years, Akli is staying in the comfortable confines of College Park to compete on the exact same courts she trains on now, a rare choice for an elite junior player who has passed through the training center. She’s heard people question her decision. It last happened when she decided to play high school tennis at Wheaton High School, a public school not known for its athletics.

Many nationally ranked juniors also choose to skip high school tennis in favor of focusing on travel for tournaments. That didn’t matter to Akli.

“I wanted to go to college and a lot of the kids here wanted to go pro, so I saw myself on a different track from them,” she says. “I didn’t really compare myself to other people.”

***

Akli’s parents met on the tennis court. Her mother, Linda, played United States Tennis Association league matches, and one day, while practicing on the courts outside Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, her team’s instructor introduced the women to his friend—a professional tennis player from Togo named Komi.

The two began to chat and he helped her improve her game. Around the same time, the newly constructed Junior Tennis Champions Center, a nonprofit organization and USTA regional training center, hired Komi as a coach. Soon after, little Ayana arrived.

Tennis has remained part of the family’s life ever since.

“Since she was crawling, I was always taking her to the [tennis] club, taking her to the club while I’m teaching,” Komi says.

But her parents were in no rush to develop and raise an elite player. Akli started taking summer tennis classes at 4, but also dabbled in other sports, like soccer and basketball, growing up. Unlike many of her peers, she didn’t begin competing in tournaments until she was 10. That didn’t stop a local private school from reaching out to the family. They weren’t interested, Linda says.

She chose to attend Wheaton through Montgomery County Public Schools’ Downcounty Consortium instead of her home school, Northwood, because of its engineering program, not its tennis prowess. (The Wheaton Knights had never won a state title in girls’ tennis before Akli, a two-time defending champion, joined the team.) As a freshman and sophomore, Akli competed on the swim and track teams, and she is currently the secretary for the class of 2019.

Akli practices at College Park multiple times a week, depending on her school schedule. Before she could drive, her bus commute from school to the facility would take more than an hour. Tuition to train at JTCC can costs tens of thousands of dollars annually, but Akli does not have to pay the fee because of her father’s role at the facility, an advantage that Komi admits lessens the pressure on his daughter. Players whose families pay the astronomical fees to train full-time at the center ($30,150 per year for two practices a day, five days a week) can feel the pressure to remain atop the rankings.

“I knew my parents didn’t pressure me to play so if I lose, they’re not going to kick me out of the house,” Akli says. “They’re not going to tell me I suck. I know if I come home, I know I’ll be OK.”

But while her friends from College Park traveled the country, playing in prestigious national tournaments, Akli stayed home, competing in mostly local tournaments. As a result, her rankings were lower and fewer colleges approached her. Linda says that about 25 schools recruited Akli, but only about a half dozen were Division I. Some insisted that Akli be a walk-on. Other schools offered engineering but did not have the prestige of competing in the Big Ten. Maryland, her mom says, hit the sweet spot of a high quality tennis team and a top 25 engineering program. 

“If she had the time, and didn’t have the rigorous academic demands, yeah, she could’ve definitely been ranked differently,” says Linda, “but we never set a goal that you have to be number one. Our goal is really to love the sport. If you love the sport, you’ll be fine.”

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In a 12-second video captured by one of her coaches, Taka Bertrand, Akli pumps her right fist, turns to Bertrand, and quietly walks toward the net. The crowd of more than 100 spectators stands up and applauds. 

She had just defeated Himari Sato, a 16-year-old from Japan who has been ranked as high as No. 38 in the world on the junior circuit, in straight sets. A stunned Akli didn’t know how to react and missed an opportunity to emulate the pros she watches on TV.

“I was just like, wow, whoa, and I walked off … You know how the pros, when they throw the towels? … I didn’t throw mine because I didn’t expect them to stand up,” she says while laughing. “But I signed autographs for a couple kids.” 

Akli traveled to Japan in October as part of the International Club Junior Challenge Worldwide finals. She tried on kimonos, went to ancient temples, sampled new food—and also helped bring back a title for JTCC and Team USA.

It wasn’t until a few months earlier that the thought of eventually playing professional tennis even crossed Akli’s mind. She saw a jump in her national and international rankings and is currently ranked second in the Mid-Atlantic girls’ 18 and under division and among the top 60 female junior tennis players in the nation. 

“I was playing well, competing well, beating people that I never thought I would beat before,” Akli says. “It was just comfortable for me to play, just relaxed, and I was like, ‘I can do this and I want to do this in the future.’”

Her dad calls her a “very, very late bloomer.” Her mother says she took the “slow road.”

Akli doesn’t regret the path she took. Neither does Maryland women’s tennis coach Daria Panova. It’s one that has potential to be a program-changer for the Terps.

“She’s fit, her footwork is really good, she has also a lot of power, which a lot of players have, but she just fights for everything, especially in the last year,” says Panova. “She’s very determined, very passionate, and not afraid to do things a lot of young players are afraid of—she comes into the net. I haven’t seen her get negative on the court. She’s very positive, and has the intangibles that separate good players from great players.”

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