Win the Tourney or It's Your Mom's 401-k

Making the top 500 in pro tennis is a big investment.

Finally, in January 2005, good news arrived — a letter from the United States Tennis Association. Rolle, whose ranking had climbed to 359, had passed a 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 in 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 started in, coincidentally, Miami's Moore Park — in prequalifiers for the NASDAQ in March of last year. Playing some of the best tennis of her life, Ahsha won six matches in three days before being eliminated. "Maybe it was the home crowd," she says. "My friends and family were all there."

Ahsha Rolle is still hunting for the big time.
Quinn Rooney
Ahsha Rolle is still hunting for the big time.

A month later, in a clay court tournament in Jackson, Mississippi, Rolle beat the first seed and went to the finals in both singles and doubles. She lost in the finals but earned $2,000. That month, USTA billed her as "Circuit Player of the Week."

Meanwhile, the Rolle family continued to spend on their daughter's travel. Last September, Sharon Rolle cashed in her 401K. "That's it," Leon says. "Our retirement is gone. We're OK, 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 says. "If she gets deep in one major tourney, that could do it."

The harsh reality, though, is that a lot of players are on the cusp — caught in a tennis purgatory, somewhere between 100 and 500. It's hard to make that leap to become solidly in the top 100, says Mark Merklein, a recently retired player who spent more than a decade on the circuit. "The travel. The cost. It's not easy," says Merklein, who never cracked 100 himself, peaking at 160.

What's more, though Ahsha is barely old enough to drink, she isn't, by women's standards, a youngster. Most top players and stars — Graf, Capriati, Evert, and Navratilova — started their rise as teenagers.

Leon Rolle, though, ever patient, says his daughter will be a top 20 player. "At least give her five more years," he says, noting that Ahsha started late. "These other girls, the Williams sisters, they started when they were young, 4 and 5. Ahsha got a late start."

As she lugs her Wilson bag on Key Biscayne two weeks ago, the hulking Crandon Park stadium behind her, Ahsha says she's not looking too far beyond Redding and two tournaments in Alabama. "I need 60 points in the next five tournaments," she says coolly. "That will give me enough to get me into the main draw at the French.

"And then," she says, 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."

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