Orange Bowl Spotlight:
Arthur Kapetanakis | December 5, 2018
Lea Ma’s best result of 2018 came at a tournament she didn’t want to play. After a second-round appearance at the junior French Open, she was ready to return home after three weeks in Europe.
But the 17-year-old of Chinese descent soldiered on to Offenbach, Germany, for her third tournament in four weeks and was rewarded with her first Grade 1 singles title – the only ITF junior singles title of her career – as well as a run to the doubles final with Chloe Beck.
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to win,” she said. “My motivation was not there.”
But playing without any expectations freed her. After her 2018 campaign started with a pair of Grade 1 final losses in South America, Ma finally made her breakthrough. She dropped just one set in singles play and defeated Elizabeth Mandlik, 6-4, 7-5, in the final.ADVERTISEMENT
“It boosted my confidence a lot,” she said of her title-winning performance, which boosted her to a career-high ITF junior ranking of No. 19 (she currently sits at No. 24).
Generally, Ma enjoys the extensive travel that comes with the ITF junior circuit, though she was happy to return home with her trophy in tow after more than a month away. She would be back in Europe just two weeks later, when she returned for junior Wimbledon and another Grade 1 event in Roehampton.
“I love traveling and seeing new places,” she said. “Playing new people in different places is really fun for me.”
After a pair of Round of 16 appearances at junior Wimbledon and the junior US Open, Ma was selected to represent Team USA in the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She enjoyed the experience of representing her country, despite the team’s struggles on the court – though staying in a room with eight other Team USA athletes presented its own challenge.
Looking ahead, the high school senior is still weighing up whether to play in college. For 2019, she is planning to play more professional tournaments, and she plans to limit her junior schedule to the Grand Slams. She played her first and only career professional tournament in July at a $25,000 ITF event in Fort Worth, Texas, losing in the first round in singles but reaching Round 2 in doubles with Hurricane Tyra Black.
Originally from Dix Hills, N.Y., Ma relocated to Bradenton, Fla., to train at the IMG Academy last winter, soon after she reached the second round of the 2017 Orange Bowl. Prior to that, she split her training time between the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., and JTCC in College Park, Md.
She half-jokingly describes her game as "very chill," a nod to her laid-back personality that extends onto the court. "But I like to be aggressive from the baseline when I can," she continued, "and I like to hit big serves."
Her 5-foot-9 frame lends itself well to the power game, but she is a smooth operator in all facets, able to defend and mix it up with feel and slice just as well. "If I need to, I can [defend]," she said. "My coaches tell me I'm really good on defense. But I prefer to play more aggressively."
Jorge Gonzalez, one of Ma's coaches at IMG, is currently working with her on being more aggressive in her footwork and raising her intensity on the court. "It's a pleasure to work with her," he said. "She's a great talent, and we're just trying to make her better." For 2019, Gonzalez is looking forward to helping Ma build her WTA ranking on the newly formed Transition Tour.
On the ultra-competitive ITF junior circuit, Ma's even-keeled demeanor is a rarity. She gives nothing away with her emotions; the same can be said for her steady, yet powerful game. Now four wins away from what would be the biggest title of her career, at the Orange Bowl, and with a promising career ahead, she certainly has a lot to be excited about. Judging from her subdued reaction after her second-round win, you would never know it.
Photo Credit: Andrew Ong/USTA