Former WTA pro Ahsha Rolle growing tennis in the Bronx
Former touring pro Ahsha Rolle was guided in part by a female coach during her WTA career, and she’s using what she learned from former Grand Slam winner Lori McNeil to mentor tennis players of all ages in New York City.
Rolle, now 35, coached by the former world No. 9 and 1988 French Open mixed doubles champion in her playing days, was recently named the director of tennis at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis and Learning, a 20-court facility nestled outside of Crotona Park in the Bronx.
Boasting a unique playing style on the court as well as a one-handed backhand as a pro, Rolle peaked at No. 82 in the WTA rankings, reached the third round of the US Open in 2007 as a wild card, and was also a member of the U.S. Billie Jean King Cup team. Retiring at age 28 due to bone spurs in both knees, Rolle’s coaching career in the New York area began at Glen Head Tennis Club on Long Island, and it can be said that the influence that McNeil had on her is now reflected in her own hands-on, personalized coaching style.
“Lori was a very impactful person in my tennis career but also in my development as a person. She has a good heart and loves to give back, and her insight, tennis-wise, was amazing. She really helped my all-court game style, but she also taught me discipline and how to be a good professional. She impacted me both on and off the court,” Rolle said.
“So for me, I try to build my players’ games based on their characteristics and personalities… I customize their training to their needs, so I don’t train everyone the same way. Off the court, I would hope that the work that we’re putting in now is helping to mold them as adults. I want them to be confident adults, I want them to be disciplined adults. I want them to learn all the life skills that tennis naturally teaches them, and apply it to whatever career choices they have in the future.”
Since Cary Leeds opened in 2015, the center has provided over 6,000 hours of free tennis instruction to under-resourced city youth annually, while also offering structured programming for juniors and adults of all ages and skill levels. In her new role, Rolle divides her time between on-court and administrative work by coordinating Cary Leeds’ adult programs, as well as training the club’s high-performance women and juniors.
“We have commercial programming that you can pay for… but we also have a community side to it. If you’re under-resourced and can’t afford things, there are programs there for you,” Rolle said. “We also give some of the kids scholarships if they can’t afford to pay. We have opportunities for all at Cary Leeds, and that’s one thing that we’re really proud of: that money or income does not separate the quality of coaching that you can experience.
“My philosophy is that a player is a player, whether you’re a 50-year-old woman or a high-performing junior. I give the same concepts and information to all of them. They all need to know continental grip skills, they all need to know how to slice, they all need to work on transitioning skills. I tell my ladies, ‘These are the drills that we did with our high-performance juniors today, and these are the drills you’re going to do, too.’ Maybe they won’t do it as long, or at the same intensity, but they’re going to do the same drills. That’s one thing that they really enjoy: that I don’t change my style and I don’t treat them differently.”
Having first picked up tennis at the age of 9 on public courts in Miami, Rolle says that the growth of the sport amongst minority groups in a similarly dense urban area like New York City is important to her. Having been in the unique position of having a female coach on the WTA tour, Rolle also hopes to impart the wisdom she gained through her pro career on the next generation, particularly as a Black woman who was mentored by another in her own development.
“I came to Cary Leeds specifically because I wanted to have more of an impact on the culture that I am in. I’m African-American, so I want to be able to help underserved kids of color and give them very high-quality coaching in that area. I want to make an impact in the community,” she said.
“From Serena and Venus to Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe… you now have this whole generation for kids of color to look up to. They’ll just create another generation of excellence. Being able to have representation in a sport that is predominantly white is huge, but also, to have someone like me being in a position like this is a great thing, too.
“Let’s say someone graduates from college and they want to get into tennis, they can strive towards roles like this. They can see another African-American in a position that they want to be in one day. Representation is the key in all these different positions, and the more we have access to things and be in different roles, the better it will be for people of color in general.
“As an organization as a whole, we’re working on being more diverse. We have four board members of color, so that’s a step in the right direction. We’re definitely pushing to have more people of color at higher positions in different organizations like this. I’m happy to be a woman of color in a strong position. I don’t know that many directors of tennis that are women, and Black at that. I hope that I can influence others to strive for excellence, and anything that I can do to promote positivity and growth in that area, I’m all for.”