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

Seven days before Federer, Agassi, Sharapova, and company roll into town for the NASDAQ-100 Open, 20-year-old tennis prodigy Ahsha Rolle walks slowly from Crandon Park Court No. 14.

After showing off her 115-mile-per-hour serve, blistering ground strokes, and wicked slice, Rolle calmly surveys the construction site surrounding her— noisy workers were busily putting up grandstands and polishing corporate logos. A Warsteiner beer pavilion is sprouting just steps away from the court where she's practiced for the past year.

At five-foot-eight and 150 pounds, with muscular arms and legs, Rolle is arguably the most promising South Florida talent since Mary Joe Fernandez was a perennial top tenner in the early 1990s. Yet as the world's best head for Key Biscayne, this African-American player is going in the other direction.

"Tomorrow, it's Redding," she says, referring to the Northern California town where tournament prize money totals $10,000, a fraction of NASDAQ's $3 million-plus purse. She pulls a crumpled piece of paper from her tennis bag that lists her travel schedule to additional tournaments in Louisiana and Alabama. "I need 60 points," she says, flashing a glance at the looming stadium, "to get into the big tournaments."

Life in the minor league of tennis is nothing new to Rolle. She's been doing it full-time for two years now, and though she doesn't mind tennis' unglamorous underbelly — the Comfort Inns, the small crowds, the small pay (winning Redding means $3,000) — it all must end. Soon.

Rolle's voice softens when talking about her parent's sacrifice. Sharon and Leon Rolle, who have bankrolled her this far, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, are tapped out. Six months ago, she explains, Mom cashed in her 401K. "They've already burned through their retirement for me," she says. "I need to win."

This fate, says Don Petrine, longtime tennis pro at Pinecrest's Royal Palm Tennis Club, is typical. "The harsh reality is you can't play this game professionally if you're middle-class. It will crush you financially."

The Rolle family owns a four-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house in a comfortable Miami Shores neighborhood. Ahsha's father is a retired lawyer. Her mother, also now retired, was a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company.

But that middle-class comfort existed before Ahsha and her younger sister, Tiya, who has followed her sister into the game, developed an interest in the sport.

It all started innocently enough in the summer of 1994, when 9-year-old Ahsha peered out of the Miami Shores rec center window and saw folks playing tennis next to the railroad tracks. Sharon and Leon sent her to a local pro. She took an immediate liking to the sport and soon was a nightly fixture on the courts at Miami's Moore Park, on NW 36th Street in Allapattah. By the time she was 12 years old, Ahsha was ranked 104th in the state.

To compete with the state's top-flight talents, Ahsha began making weekend trips to Orlando and Tampa. But that wasn't enough. To go the next level, a pro advised that Ahsha needed a full-time coach.

In summer 1996, the Rolles got extremely lucky. Gibson Beautelus, a former star player at Jackson Senior High, who was teaching kids at Morningside Park, agreed to teach the 12-year-old full-time for free. (Leon estimates that this saved the family at least ten thousand dollars a year.) Beautelus worked with Ahsha for six hours each day. Within four months, her ranking soared to fourth in the state.

But then, the Rolles learned a maxim about tennis: "The better you get, the more expensive the game becomes," Leon says. Ahsha was no longer satisfied with regional competition; she was a national player. To raise her ranking, she had to compete with top juniors: the Easter Bowl in Palm Springs, the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, the Super National Clay Courts. The ITF grass courts in Philly. The ITF hard courts in Jersey. "Those are musts," Rolle says, "and there's the Peach Bowl. And they're kids. You have to travel with them.

"It cost us 30 grand a year, conservatively. And we did that for four years."

In her late teens, Ahsha's ranking wavered around 15th in the country in her age group. She was recruited by colleges across the country. Close to 50 inquired, including Florida, Georgia Tech. Even Harvard.

But Ahsha insisted on going pro, hitting the circuit full-time in 2004. She played 26 tournaments that year and logged hundreds of thousands of air miles. Her ranking inched up. She ended the year in the 600s.

But money again was a problem. Aside from an equipment deal with Wilson (rackets and strings), Ahsha didn't get any sponsors. "I was just thinking they would come to us," Leon says. "We heard about these girls making $2 million up-front. But the big companies never called. They seemed to go for the young European girls."

In addition to the steep travel costs of the circuit — "it's at least $60,000 a year," Leon says, "double that of the junior tour" — the family had to, at one point, invest in a "hitting partner." Beautelus — the pro-bono coach — couldn't leave Miami regularly. So they hired a pro for $3,000 a month to travel with Ahsha.

By fall 2004, the family was in financial trouble. Leon, suffering from heart problems, was unable to work. Sharon had retired from her job at Glaxo Smith-Kline. "We were burning through our retirement savings," he says. "But Ahsha's game was really developing."

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."

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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Josh Schonwald