The final day of Natasha Subhash’s Citi Open wild card tournament drags on and she isn’t sure if she can continue. The temperature hovers in the 90s, and spectators seek shade as the sun beats down on center court at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. The 16-year-old from Fairfax is used to the relentless grind of elite junior tennis, but coming off the court between matches, Subhash has chills from heat exhaustion.
“She had a brutal match,” says one of her coaches, Bob Pass. He gets Subhash inside and immediately sits her down with fluids. “We didn’t even know if she was going to be able to go out there and play [again].”
But she keeps going. And in the championship match against 17-year-old Nicole Hammond, Subhash displays all of the skills that have made her one of the best junior tennis players in the world, winning 6-4, 6-4, to earn the chance to play in this weekend’s Citi Open qualifying tournament.
“I was just feeling not well because I’d had a really long match,” says Subhash. “I just tried to stay positive and kept playing the way I wanted to, and I won.”
At first glance, Subhash, a soft-spoken rising senior at Falls Church High School, appears to be like any other 16 year old. She stresses over homework, enjoys hanging out with friends, and talks excitedly about her final year of high school before heading off to college.
But she’s not an average teenager. She travels the world with her tennis rackets and competes in the some of the most prestigious 18-under international tennis tournaments. Verbally committed to play at the University of Virginia, she’s currently the 46th ranked junior in the world. Earlier this month, she flew to London to compete in singles and doubles at the Wimbledon junior main draw, losing both in the first round.
Her next tournament will be a little closer to home.
“It means the world to me,” says Subhash of playing a tournament in D.C. “I went to watch the Citi Open back when it was called Legg Mason [Tennis Classic] so many times, and it’s such an honor to be able to play there.”
If she makes it through the weekend into the main draw, Subhash could find herself opposite of some of the best players in the world.
The Citi Open, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, routinely draws big names to the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. This year’s main draw field includes Grand Slam champions Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Sloane Stephens, and Caroline Wozniacki, along with rising stars like Naomi Osaka and Hyattsville native Frances Tiafoe.
Playing in the tournament will help answer a question for Subhash about whether or not she can one day make it on the professional tour. Her coaches believe she has a chance.
“The thing that really makes her stand out is her mental capacity of understanding of, ‘This is working, this isn’t working,’ and being able to change things up as she plays,” says one of her coaches, Bear Schofield. “She’s a very smart girl on the court.”
Subhash started playing at age 4, when her father, Subhash Kongassery,noticed that his only child had good hand-eye coordination and took her to a nearby tennis academy. By age 6, she was playing in tournaments, and by the time she was 11, she was ranked No. 1 nationally in her age group.
At 14, when she qualified for the Junior U.S. Open and began playing—and beating—older, world-ranked players, Subhash decided to devote herself fully to tennis. She now takes classes online via Fairfax County Public Schools, which allows her to spend four to six hours a day, six days a week on tennis, as well as travel frequently.
Putting the sport before a typical high school experience can be tough at times, says Subhash. “It gets lonely and I would have loved to have the social part of [high school], but it’s also a sacrifice I have to make,” she says. “Between the options, neither was perfect, so I had to choose.”
The world of junior tennis comes with a lot of pressure. With the equipment, lessons, and travel to tournaments, it’s expensive.
“Junior tennis is parent-sponsored,” says Kongassery. He and his wife, Sulekha Subhash, immigrated to the United States from India in 1997. He now works as an information technology specialist, and she’s an American history teacher.
As first-generation immigrants, they can’t afford to send a coach and trainer with Subhash on every trip, Kongassery says, and although Subhash made it to the main draw of the Junior Australian Open this year, they did not go because of the expense.
The family doesn’t take traditional vacations, as all their time and money goes toward traveling with Subhash to tournaments around the world. The cost of it all adds up to more than their monthly mortgage payment, says Kongassery.
A lot of junior tennis players can let the stress get to them. Cheating is common, says Reilly Tran, Subhash’s best friend and a fellow tennis player. Young players are often so competitive, they purposely make bad line calls or fudge scores.
“A lot of these kids kind of struggle to find people to make friends with because they’re just so competitive,” says Tran. “I think that’s another reason why Natasha and I became such good friends. She’s so calm and she’s kind of the rock in the friendship and she’s always level headed.”
It’s important to keep an outside perspective. Subhash makes time for other things like going to the mall or movies with friends, and she loves to listen to music and read. She’s excited for her senior year, and she wants to study business at Virginia.
Playing college tennis and getting a degree is a smart backup plan, as a high number of junior tennis players don’t ever end up making it pro. As Pass is quick to remind, you never know what’s going to happen. All players are just “an ankle twist away from oblivion,” he says.
When asked what her biggest dream is, Subhash is quick to answer—win a Grand Slam or be No. 1 in the world. There are plenty of rungs to climb before getting there, one of which is the elephant in the room: turning pro.
But if there’s one thing Subhash’s family, friends, and coaches can agree on it’s this: She’s got the work ethic to pull it off.
When she started out, Schofield knew she was good, but he didn’t know she’d become the player she is today, he says.
“She is hardworking, honest, just a great kid, and so you go out there and you see her and she’s just working her tailbone off and doing all the right things,” he says. “Her tenacity, her feistiness, and her desire really has carried her all this way. She earned every little bit that she’s gotten so far.”
When Subhash takes the court July 28 and 29 for the Citi Open qualifiers, it’ll be the biggest tournament she’s ever played. But true to fashion, she’s sticking to what she knows—staying upbeat and keeping the pressure low.
“I have no expectations for it,” she says. “I’m just going to try to have fun and play well.”