- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2019

Budding young tennis talent and D.C. native Hailey Baptiste has been coming to see the Citi Open at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center for years — but she admits she “never really bought tickets.” She started training at the facility when she was four — she used to sneak in through a back gate.

There was no sneaking into the Citi Open this year. The 17-year-old wild-card player was on center stage earlier this week when she bumped off the No. 2 seed Madison Keys in the first round of the tournament. It was Baptiste’s first Women’s Tennis Association win.

“Half of the match I couldn’t even feel my legs,” Baptiste said after Tuesday’s match. “It was amazing, like, having everybody in the crowd cheering for me. I knew every other person in the crowd, so it felt really good.”

Vesa Ponkka, the senior director of tennis at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, was one of the familiar faces in the stands. Baptiste started training at that facility when she was about six, and Ponkka has watched her grow into a mature teenager.

“I was very impressed with how poised she was,” Ponkka said. “How her mental game was excellent.”

Baptiste, who now trains in Orlando, spent about nine years at the JTCC. The facility was a breeding ground for young talent, producing tennis standouts like Washington Kastles star Frances Tiafoe and Olympian Denis Kudla.

“Frances was looking up to Denis Kudla, and got that belief system that, ‘If I work hard, I can do it,’ Ponkka said. “Then, of course, Hailey grew up with Frances … When Frances had his breakthrough then I’m sure that Hailey had that, ‘Hey, if Frances can do it, then I can do it.’”

And now, the youngest players at the JTCC are looking up to Baptiste, too.

“It’s great for the little kids to see that, hey, you can play in the highest level if you work hard enough,” Ponkka said.

Baptiste lost in the round of 16 Wednesday night to Kristina Mladenovic of France, with a small hometown crowd in the stands. The match marked the end of Baptiste’s Citi Open run but proved to her that she belongs on the professional court.

“Just knowing I can compete at this level, that I’m right there with all the top players,” she said after Wednesday’s match. “Just got to keep pushing myself to get better and, like, fix little things.”

Baptiste, now ranked No. 287, said she will play next week at the National Hard Courts in San Diego for a chance at a wild-card spot in the U.S. Open.

“There’s no question in my mind that she’s going to move up in the rankings,” Ponkka said. “I believe she’s going to be a very successful tennis player. Absolutely.”

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