A Father's Influence at 2019 USTA League Nationals

Victoria Chiesa | June 18, 2020

2019 USTA League National Championship participant Maria Abamonga, representing the Hawaii-Pacific section, got her start in tennis like many do: learning the game from her father as a child. 


Over the next three decades, however, the Hawaiian’s relationship with the sport—and the father who taught it to her—overcame peaks, valleys and an ocean’s worth of distance to ultimately become one of the most inspiring journeys to last season’s national circuit. 


Growing up in the early 1980s with “no tennis background,” Abamonga, who is left-handed, was encouraged to pick up the sport “around age 6 or 7” by her father, who noted the natural advantage she’d have as a result.


However, the pair’s burgeoning future in tennis together was brought to a halt less than five years after Abamonga picked up a racquet. After her parents split up, her father relocated to Iran for work as a mechanic, and the pair lost touch.


“While dad was gone,” she recalled, “I had picked up one of his old aluminum tennis racquets just so I could hit against the wall all by myself.”


At the same time, Abamonga relocated to Honolulu and soon found her relationship with her mother and sister, and her mother’s extended family, strained due to the physical resemblance she bore to her father. 


But over a decade later, after her father remarried and returned to the U.S., the pair reunited, and as if they’d never parted, tennis once again proved central to their father-daughter dynamic.


“We played tennis after work and on the weekends, which brought us even closer together,” she continued. 


“Dad was giving us lessons, and he even gave lessons to all our other friends who were interested in playing tennis. As a family in the year 2000, we signed up for USTA membership just so we could join the leagues.”


Abamonga had her father by her side for many milestones in her life from then on, which included her wedding, before he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2013. 


While he bravely battled for five years, the strain of her father’s condition proved difficult for his adult daughter. 


“It was really hard for me to accept it. Right away, he started chemotherapy, the fighting journey,” she said. “I started breaking by not taking care of myself anymore and even thought of committing suicide. I gained a lot of weight and started having health problems, such as diabetes, and some mental issues that almost cost me my own marriage. 


“Dad really fought for his life. He didn't want to go. I didn't want him to go, but it was so hard for me to watch him deteriorate.”


Shortly after Christmas, on Dec. 28, 2018, Abamonga’s father passed away.


“Towards his very last moments, I asked him how to cope,” she continued. “He said, ‘Just don't think about the problem. Think about the things that we love to do, like tennis. It is good for your mind and body.’ 


“Then he said, ‘You know, you should start playing tennis again 'cause you're a lefty and it's hard to return your balls and maybe help you lose some weight.’”


Strengthened by her father’s final words, Abamonga was inspired to return to the courts, where a chance encounter helped put her on course to ultimately reach the USTA’s national stage. 


“Days after, I started coming out to hit some balls again and saw my dad's friends that he used to play with a long, long time ago,” she explained. “They asked if I wanted to join an 18-and-over women's league and mixed league, and I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’ 


“Dad’s friend named Kimi gave my information to the 3.5 captain. She said not to worry because I'm in good hands.”


Despite some early apprehension, Abamonga quickly bonded with her new teammates, and her skills helped her Oahu-based team win the Hawaii-Pacific section to earn a place in the 18-and-over 3.5 national field in Surprise, Ariz., last October. 


In Arizona, Abamonga won three of the four doubles matches she competed in.


“I was so nervous meeting my team for the first time, I didn't know how to react,” she continued with a laugh. 


“I didn't want to disappoint them, and with my poor performance I might be, so we practiced. Then came an actual game. I won, we won [as a team], and I was thinking in my head, ‘Dad, is this what you're trying to tell me?’”


“My team and I really bonded. They were like my family to me now. I forgot all about the problems and issues I have. I was so focused on getting into shape so I wouldn't get hurt on the court. Nationals came, and win or lose, it didn’t matter anymore. We already made it, and we had so much fun.”


Ultimately, Abamonga hopes that her story can inspire others to persevere through any kind of adversity in their own lives. 


“I still get teary-eyed every time I talk about my dad. I really miss him so much,” she said. “He knew what I went through as a child but chose not to talk about it because it hurt him more than it hurt me. We were like connected, body and mind.


“I kept myself isolated from anyone for so long that I couldn’t anymore. It just needs to be talked about out loud now.


“I want people to know that if they're going through tough times, look for something that they enjoy most, like playing sports, just to get that negative stuff out of their mind. Reach out and talk to someone about it. Sometimes it's good to let it out and get it off your chest.”

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