At the height of her playing career, Ahsha Rolle reached the third-round of the U.S. Open back in 2007, and peaked at No. 82 in the WTA Rankings.
A competitive tour player with a unique playing style and graceful one-handed backhand, Rolle also competed on behalf of the United States in both Fed Cup and Billie Jean King Cup action.
However, knee injuries, specifically bone spurs, closed the curtains on a promising playing career when Rolle was just 28-years-old. But while her time competing on tour may have been over, she was not done with tennis just yet.
"During my offseasons I would do a little coaching, mainly at country clubs down in West Palm Beach,” said Rolle. “I liked doing it, and found out that I was actually pretty good at coaching. I got some positive feedback from players. I found a new passion for the sport, and found it less self-absorbed than being a player. I like seeing the growth and development of a player and finding ways to constantly encourage them during that process."
So when Rolle officially retired from professional tennis, her coaching journey would begin on Long Island at the Glen Head Racquet Club. Following her time there, Rolle joined New York Junior Tennis & Learning (NYJTL), specifically at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning in the Bronx, the flagship home of NYJTL.
Since the Cary Leeds Center opened in 2015, it has offered thousands of hours of free tennis instruction in addition to the paid programming it offers for adults and juniors. Rolle was initially brought on to be the Director of Adult Tennis, and after doing that for about a year, she was named the Director of Tennis of not only the Cary Leeds Center, but NYJTL as a whole.
"Tennis has opened so many doors for me, and it’s really come full circle for me to be able to be at an organization like NYJTL, and be able to help the next generation of players, and expose them to all the things that tennis has done for me,” said Rolle. “It’s been great. In addition to the coaching I do on court, I also train the coaches organization-wide, and being able to train hundreds of different coaches has been extremely rewarding.”
Rolle got her start in tennis on the public courts in Miami where she grew up. A self-described tomboy growing up, Rolle would follow her older brothers around when they would play sports, and can recall picking up a racket for the first time when she was nine-years-old on those very courts.
"The local park near where we lived had basketball courts, and right behind them were tennis courts,” she recalls. “I’m pretty sure my brothers convinced my parents to let me take lessons there just to get me out of their hair, but that’s how it all started. The coaches told my parents that I was talented. Neither of my parents played tennis, so it’s really just by chance that we found it."
Rolle would go on to become one of the top juniors in the country and at just 19-years-old, she turned professional. She credits much of her success to Lori McNeil, the former Top 10 player who went on to become a successful tennis coach. Rolle was profoundly impacted by McNeil’s tutelage, not only as a tennis player but as a person.
“Lori was the one who introduced me to the USTA. I was a young player and didn’t have much money coming from my family to travel and play on tour, but Lori connected me to the USTA which allowed me to have a coach travel with me, and provided fitness coaches as well as traveling partners,” said Rolle. “All of that was possible because of Lori, and she was essential to my development. She found me as a junior and opened doors for me to be able to sustain a professional career. When I went into coaching, I took all of the lessons I learned as a kid, from Lori and all of my coaches, and try to use them to help the next generation. It’s really been full circle for me."
Rolle now brings all of her experience and knowledge to the 20-court facility that resides just outside Crotona Park in the South Bronx, helping to mold the next generation of tennis players.
As an African-American woman who grew up playing on public courts, Rolle knows the importance of a person who looks like her being in a position such as Director of Tennis, especially in a dense urban area like the Bronx, which is similar to the one she grew up in Miami.
"It’s huge. Having someone that looks like them and who they can relate to is really important,” said Rolle. “We actually just started a new series called our Holding Court: Speaker Series, which brings prominent tennis players to the facility to engage with our community. We had current ATP Tour Player Chris Eubanks come in and provide clinics for our local youth programs as well as for adults. To be able to have a player like that, before he goes to play at the Australian Open, speak to the kids is such great exposure, and shows them there are different possibilities. Lori [McNeil] will be coming in at the beginning of February for Black History Month, and it’s just been a huge part of what I have tried to do here. They may not all grow up to be professional tennis players, but you can take the skills you learn from this sport and apply it to whatever you choose to do."
Since its inception more than seven years ago, the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning has helped introduce the game to countless new young players, who may not otherwise wanted to play, or were able to play. Rolle tells the story of one mother who approached her at a free instructional lesson for the community and told her that her young son wanted to be a football or basketball player when he grew up, but now wants to be a tennis player.
That is the sort of impact that exposure can have on a young person, and seeing those possibilities encourages them to continue in tennis. Rolle was once that little kid who had tennis transform her life, and her mission now is to open as many doors as she can for the next generation of players.
"I was lucky in a sense, because I know players don’t always know what to do next in their careers, but I was a bit more enlightened on what my next steps would be. Being able to progress my coaching skills over the years, and now be at an organization where I am able to help so many different people has been an amazing ride. I hope to continue to impact the sport in a positive way as much as I can."
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com