By Jane Voigt
Daniel Island, S.C., April 3, 2018 — Taking the college route to professional tennis is not a well-worn path. If you’re good and you’re ready to compete, most amateurs grab the gusto and hit the trail, casting risk to the wind. However some have waited and have had success. Most recently three names come to mind: John Isner, a University of Georgia graduate, Danielle Collins, a University of Virginia graduate and Kristen Ahn, a Stanford University graduate.
Isner, who’ll be 33 in a couple weeks, has persevered since turning pro right out of college in 2007. Sunday he won his first-ever Masters 1000 singles trophy last week in Miami.
Danielle Collins awed fans and tennis with her stellar performances in Indian Wells and Miami, last month. Collins beat her idol Venus Williams in the quarterfinal of Miami; and, defeated Madison Keys in the second round. Today she’s reached her career high ranking of No. 53. A year ago it was 167.
Today Kristen Ahn blew through 2010 Volvo Car Open champion Samantha Stosur in the American’s first-ever appearance at this tournament 6-3, 6-4. Ahn’s rank: 107.
“It’s obviously a big moment just to play against someone of that caliber,” Ahn told the press. “These are the moments that you work for, and you don’t quite believe them until it’s here. I’ve taken some tough losses this year, but my hard work will eventually pay off. Kind of like Danielle.”
Ahn graduated from Stanford in 2014 two years before Collins.
“I think we’re the only two college graduates of American universities, like in the top 250 of something,” Ahn said. “So it’s really cool to see her doing so well. I’ve gotten to know her, but didn’t in college. Afterwards we played a couple times and it’s been really cool to see her jumps. And obviously she took out Venus, which was a huge ordeal because we were watching her as kids. So I think she inspires a lot of girls who have graduated.”
Shenay Perry, Ahn’s coach and former tour player, made several main draw appearances on Daniel Island.
“I’ve know her since I was like 16,” Ahn began. “She was still playing at the time. At the end of 2016 Kathy Rinaldi [Fed Cup Coach for the U.S.] called her in for a camp at the U.S.T.A. [in] Boca. We were kind of like working together on court and she was only there for a week, but stayed for another week. I was joking, like, hey, want to be my coach? She was like ‘yeah, sure!’. She’s traveled a couple of times already this year, so I’m really happy to have her here.”
Although the main stadium seating here pales in relation to ones in Indian Wells and Miami, where upwards to 17,000 can sit, this was the American’s first taste of center court tennis that was nationally televised.
“I think she was more nervous than I was,” Ahn said about Perry’s on-court coaching visit. “The first one was lightheaded, just reminders. The second was more serious. She could tell I was nervous, so it was good to have her tell me straightforward things and get off the court.”
Fellow Stanford students and grads chimed in on Twitter, not too long after her win. The hashtag “FearTheTree” started to climb.
“So our unofficial mascot is the tree for Stanford,” Ahn explained. “It’s just a tree, just a dancing tree. Our official mascot is Cardinal, the shade of red. I guess the students voted on it [the tree] years back. Stanford students. That should explain it. (laughing)”
Like Collins Ahn did not consider turning pro before college, but after graduation she approached her parents with the idea. They weren’t in favor. She didn’t do well the first couple years either. She felt the absence of the support system Stanford tennis gave her in college: coaches, fitness trainers, physical trainers.
“I moved to Florida for whatever reason and had no real coach or any structure,” she said. “My parents constantly were asking me, when are you done, are you done, is this your last one, is this your last year. It’s tough. When you’re ranked 900, it’s not their pride of like, yes, my daughter is playing professional tennis. (laughs)”
Nonetheless both parents sent her texts today, after her victory.
“I think eventually I can say they’re proud of me,” she began. “I got to talk to both of them today. So, I’m excited about that.”
Ahn majored in Science, Technology and Society. She wants to work in her major after the tennis sun has set.
“Last year was going to be my last year on tour,” she began. “I was going to give it three years since I graduated. I was like, this is it. It’s been good. It’s been fun. I’m ready to move on with my life.”
But as fate would have it an opportunity popped in Monterrey.
“I qualified and won a round and then another and then I also started working with my coach Shenay Perry. Things just started to roll,” she said. “So hopefully I can keep that momentum going for some more years.”
Stanford graduate and current WTA tour player Nicole Gibbs was both a singles and doubles star for Stanford Women’s Tennis. She turned pro, after accepting prize money at 2013 Wimbledon. To date she hasn’t gone past the second round of any Grand Slam. Patrick McEnroe, currently a broadcast journalist for ESPN and Tennis Channel also slugged through four year at Stanford. Lisa Raymond is a graduate of the University of Florida but is now retired from the pro tour. She won 11 Grand Slams titles: 6 in women’s doubles and 5 in mixed doubles. She reached the number-one ranking in doubles in June, 2000. Over the course of her career, she earned more than $10 million USD.