As the top-ranked junior tennis player in the country, Kristie Ahn has won countless matches, including those that secured her USTA National Spring Championship and Junior Fed Cup last year.
But it was actually in one of her rare defeats that this 16-year-old from Upper Saddle River found the most joy.
At the U.S. Open last August in Louis Armstrong Stadium in Queens, Ahn lost in the first round, 6-3, 6-4, to Russian Dinara Safina, the sixth seed in the tournament and seventh-ranked woman in the world. It was hardly a low point: Ahn gave it her best effort, and gave the crowd—which was rallying behind their Jersey girl—some exhilarating tennis.
“It was definitely the greatest experience of my life,” says Ahn. “It didn’t even make sense to me that I was in the U.S. Open. When I won the last qualifying tournament, I was like, seriously?”
Reaching those qualifying rounds has been a thrill—and a surprise—for this phenom, who says she did not realize she was “pretty good” until she got to the national semifinals at the age of 14. “The results were just getting better and better, but the whole thing just happened so fast,” she says.
Ahn may be a powerful player on the court, but off the green concrete she is a bubbly, down-to-earth Jersey teenager. A high school junior, she is starting to think about colleges and what to major in—though getting her driver’s license in June is at the top of her agenda. Her favorite sport is actually soccer (Go figure.). And when friends visit her Garden State home, the first place she takes them is the mall.
She says her parents, who emigrated to the United States from Korea, “have basically been the foundation for everything for me.” They introduced her to tennis when she was 8, and her coach, Lee Hurst, has kept her loving the game.
At such a young age, one would expect Ahn to be swept up by the spotlight, but she is not. In fact, she does not even like to focus on specific goals, such as returning to the U.S. Open and getting past the first round. “Right now, I just take it as it goes,” she says. “I don’t want to set myself up to feel like I have to win to have fun.”
So far, it’s a strategy that works.
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