Video provided by: Matt Fults/Rival Films
Twelve-year-old Jessica Griffiths balances being a kid with work as a model, an entrepreneur and a developing tennis player. The Maui native is one of seven kids on the USTA Hawaii 14 & Under Intermediate team having a blast on the mainland during the 2013 Jr. Team Tennis National Championships.
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
“She’s the cheerleader of our team, bringing spirits up and helping everyone she knows in the community. Without her, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be here at Nationals.”
The praise from USTA Hawaii coach Manny Fernando is about Jessica Griffiths, the 12-year-old who has improved her tennis game and forged several friendships along the way in her first year playing for the Royal Lahaina Tennis Club in Maui. It wasn’t easy making practice and matches – over an hour drive for her parents, Dan and Lisa, from their home in Wailuku – yet Griffiths was serious about learning the sport.
“When she first started, she didn’t have the right foundation,” said Fernando. “We worked the basics with Jessica, rebuilding. She’s gotten so much stronger and became one of our better doubles players. Her backhand, in particular, is very good.”
Griffiths stands out at the 2013 USTA Jr. Team Tennis National Championships – and not just for her powerful backhand and a beaming smile.
In 2010, Griffiths and her and her older sister, Christiana, 18, went in together and began a family business called “Maui Girlz Shaved Ice,” selling frozen treats on weekends to raise funds for various school projects. Last weekend, the cause was to help aid the cost of team travel for the 9,000-mile-plus round trip between Maui and Cayce.
The sisters also recruited local sponsors for a private auction, raising nearly $1,000 in the process over two days.
“We’re a small tennis community, and a trip such as this is a huge financial undertaking” said Fernando. “The Royal Lahaina could not have afforded this trip on its own. Jessica and her family were wonderful in helping to defray costs.”
Beyond being a budding tennis player and entrepreneur, Griffiths also earned a bit of national fame in 2011 when her likeness was used to design Mattel’s first-ever Hawaiian American Girl doll. Named “Kanani Akina” the character joined the ranks of fellow American Girls Kit Kittredge and Molly McIntire. Kanani has been the main character in two children’s books by author Lisa Yee, "Aloha, Kanani" and "Good Job, Kanani," and as a nod to Griffiths, the character in storyline helps out her family by selling shaved ices. More than 23 million American Girl dolls have been sold through the company’s catalogue, retail stores and website since 1986, in addition to 143 million books sold.
“My dad tells a lot of people it’s me – I get embarrassed a bit by it,” said Griffiths, smiling. “I like to keep it kind of quiet, but I also get to meet a lot of girls when I work who love American Girl and recognize me, wanting to talk. That’s when it’s fun.”
Fun has been the operative word for Griffiths’ trip to the mainland, and she has used the trip as a chance to make new friends. It’s also been an education.
“I love tennis and the people I play with,” she said after completing a match against USTA Northern. “Now, being here, it’s been amazing to have the opportunity to play with kids from other areas of the country. They have different strokes – some with lots of spin, some no spin, some hit really flat. You learn a lot.”
On the sidelines, she makes sure to cheer on doubles partners and good friends Kaitlyn Ralar and Ailana Suehiro.
“We’re all really close,” said Griffiths, before shifting gears to analyze her passions and causes on the court – and off. “I work better as part of a team than alone.”
USTA Jr. Team Tennis brings kids together in teams to play singles, doubles and mixed doubles against other teams. It promotes social skills and important values by fostering a spirit of cooperation and unity, as well as individual self-growth. Also, it’s a fun environment for kids in which they learn that succeeding is really more about how they play the game – win or lose.