Torrey Pines tennis player Alyssa Ahn is on the fast track

Alyssa Ahn has grown an inch in the last year and is bringing an even more powerful game.
(Fred Sidhu)

Ahn won CIF singles title last year at 14, 16s national title this month at 15


When then 14-year-old Torrey Pines freshman Alyssa Ahn knocked off two-time reigning champion Kaila Barksdale to win the San Diego Section singles championship last November, a question hung on tip of local tennis fans’ tongues.

How good can this girl become?

The long-term answer remains to be seen. But in the short term, the answer is coming in hard and fast like one of Ahn’s blistering flat forehands: the Carmel Valley teenager is scary good. National champion good.

On Sept. 1, Ahn leaves for New York to compete in the U.S. Open Junior Championships, her reward for winning the USTA Billie Jean King Girls’ 16s National Championship nine days ago at the Barnes Tennis Center.

King was sitting behind a baseline and treated to an up-close view of Ahn’s dominating 6-2, 6-3 win over New York’s Christasha McNeil in the Girls’ 16s National Championship.

“What I like best about her is that she’s so competitive,” said King, arguably the most influential person ever in women’s tennis. “It’s hard to teach a child or a young person to be competitive. You either have it or you don’t. I mean, she competes. She tries to get to everything and really hangs in there.”

Ahn’s father, Michael, played collegiately at the Air Force Academy. He hoped Alyssa would enjoy the game but didn’t want to coach her.

“I never wanted to be that person,” he said of the overbearing coach/parent.

Instead, one of Michael’s friends gave Alyssa her first lessons at 7. She was soon competing in tournaments and by 10 was ranked No. 1 in her age group in Southern California.

Ahn is an example of good things coming in small packages. She stands 5 feet 3 and weighs 105 pounds. To those in the know, the key to Ahn’s success centers around four factors: that competitiveness, her mental toughness, her athleticism and fitness.

In the Girls 16s National Championships, a 256-player draw, Ahn dropped the first set in her quarterfinal and semifinal matches. In the quarters, Alanis Hamilton of Arkansas, who came in with a higher ranking, dominated the first set, 6-2.

Said Steve Adamson, Ahn’s personal coach, “Alanis was just playing lights-out tennis.”

Don Chu, Ahn’s Torrey Pines coach, said Alyssa was going for too many winners in the first set. In the second set, Ahn kept more balls in play and in the end she wore down Hamilton, winning 2-6, 7-6 (4). 7-5.

Said Adamson, “Her biggest asset is her is how composed she can be on the court. Her mental toughness is what sets her apart.”

Canyon Crest Academy’s Kevin Brown has been coaching tennis for 35 years. He said Ahn is one of the most athletic tennis players he has ever watched.

“It’s just her speed, balance, body control,” said Brown. “She could have been a track athlete easily.”

Those who saw Ahn dismantle Barksdale, then a senior, 6-2, 6-2 in last year’s section singles final and haven’t seen her since then might do a double take when watching her play now. Ahn says she’s probably an inch taller. She doesn’t know if her weight has changed but she’s noticeably more muscular, particularly in the legs.

“Her fitness is impeccable, amazing would be a better word for it,” said Adamson.

That increased musculature comes from three-times-a-week weight-resistance training.

“She’s a super hard worker. She never complains,” said Adamson. “She never whines, never throws her racket. She’s amazing. She’s a pleasure to coach.”

As for her playing style, Ahn pounds away from the baseline. She says she doesn’t have a favorite shot, but her forehand is her biggest weapon. Adamson said where Ahn can most improve is putting more pop into her serve and becoming more comfortable coming to the net.

She’s hardly glued to the baseline though, as evidenced by finishing fourth in doubles at the USTA Billie Jean King Girls’ 16 National Championship

Sitting outside a Starbucks last week on the first day of school, Ahn said what draws her to tennis is its individuality.

“I can think for myself on the court,” she said. “It also helps me off the court be a more independent person.”

To push herself against better competition, Ahn played four low-level pro tournaments from May to June, primarily facing college players, two of whom had earned All-American recognition. She won two qualifying-round matches, beating one former All-American and was competitive against the other All-American.

“I just learned that I can hang with the college players,” she said.

Her goal is to play in college, ideally at Stanford. A professional tennis career hasn’t crossed her mind.

“I feel I’m too young to think about that right now,” she said.

She contemplated not playing high school tennis this year to focus on improving her game, but decided to play again for the Falcons.

“It’s more for the environment, being with the other girls, making new friends with the other girls coming on the team. I really enjoy the team environment,” she said.

Come the postseason, she’ll be a prohibitive favorite.

“I don’t see anybody out there that’s going to push her,” said Brown. “Pretty much everyone she’s going to play is going to know she won the national 16s. At this level, that’s worth at least four games.”

To Adamson, Chu and Torrey Pines teammates, as good as Ahn is at bashing baseline winners, she’s an even better person. She’s a straight-A student. At the Barnes Tennis Center where she practices, Ahn volunteers for beginners’ tournaments and often feeds practice balls to beginners.

“I know at one point I was at that stage,” she said. “It really helped when other people cheered for me and volunteers helped out. I want to give back to the community I came from.”

“Alyssa is one of the sweetest human beings I think I’ve ever met,” said Falcons sophomore teammate Bradey Taub. “She’s really humble, just a great person to be around.”

King heard about Ahn’s volunteer work and was impressed.

“She’s probably going to be a leader on and off the court,” said King. “I think she’s wonderful. She’s going to have a great life, no matter what.”

Norcross is a freelance writer.