August 30, 2007
A Popular Women’s Champion, and a Player Trying to Get There
By LYNN ZINSER
Their matches were separated by a few hundred yards last night, but the gap between Serena Williams and Ahsha Rolle might as well be measured in light-years.
Camera flashes announced Williams’s entrance into Arthur Ashe Stadium, the center of the United States Open universe, just as Rolle set off a raucous celebration among the few thousand people at the grandstand court who watched Rolle fall to the court in relief and triumph.
Williams and Rolle are twentysomething African-American women playing the same sport at the same tournament, winning second-round matches on the same night. But for Rolle, a 22-year-old unknown who has toiled on the far edge of tennis fame, beating the equally anonymous Karin Knapp of Germany qualified as a career-changing moment. Williams, one of the game’s glitziest stars, easily defeated Maria Elena Camerin of Italy, wearing a set of diamond earrings and a matching necklace that might have cost more than Rolle has earned all year ($57,000).
“Amazing,” Rolle said of her second-round victory, which advanced her further than she had in any top-level tournament, much less a Grand Slam event. “I’ve worked so hard to get here. My hard work is finally paying off. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Rolle, who is from Miami Shores, Fla., battled long and hard for a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory against Knapp, while Williams battled mostly herself in a 7-5, 6-2 victory. Williams’s drama surrounded her outfit — the pink and black dress now minus the pink bow she ripped off in frustration in a first-round victory Monday — and whether she can muster the stamina to contend for her third Open title after an injury-plagued year.
Rolle shared the night with another surprising American, the recent Georgia graduate John Isner, who added a chapter to his come-from-nowhere story. Isner, a 22-year-old wild card, defeated the qualifier Rik De Voest of South Africa, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (4). Isner used his huge serve — powered from his 6-foot-9 frame — but also showed surprising touch in dominating De Voest.
This victory earned Isner an unlikely date Saturday with top-seeded Roger Federer, who had little trouble with Paul Capdeville of Chile, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4, in the final match of the night.
“This is my first Grand Slam ever; just getting a wild card into the event was pretty special,” Isner said. “I’ve won two matches against quality opponents and have my next match against I believe the most dominant athlete in the world in any sport. I get to play against him in Arthur Ashe. It’s definitely surreal.”
But even Isner’s unlikely story lacks the kind of drama that Rolle has endured to be here. Until two years ago, her parents risked financial ruin to bankroll her career, as Rolle made a slow climb from promising youngster to a pro player.
Leon and Sharon Rolle watched their daughter from courtside yesterday, alternately encouraging their daughter and praying for her.
“My parents have sacrificed so many things for me to be able to play this sport,” said Rolle, a second cousin of the N.F.L. cornerbacks Samari and Antrel Rolle. “I’m forever indebted to them. My parents are great. They haven’t been the ‘crazy tennis parents’ that have been on me. They’ve always been positive whether I win or lose. They are great.”
Leon, a retired lawyer who has battled heart problems, and Sharon, a retired pharmaceutical representative, had begun draining their retirement accounts to pay for Rolle’s coaches, shoes and travel expenses.
Two years ago, Rolle finally progressed far enough to earn support from the U.S.T.A. development program. She is now ranked a career-high 109th. The U.S.T.A. granted her a wild card here and she celebrated with a first-round victory over 17th-seeded Tatiana Golovin.
Once, when Rolle was 9, she went to the Williamses’ house in Jupiter, Fla., with another junior player to watch Venus and Serena practice. She has looked up to them since, hoping to reach the icon status they long ago achieved. Rolle was thrilled when Venus said hello to her in the locker room here
, but she hopes to compete at their level someday.
“I mean, I work hard, just as hard as they do, so why not?” she said. “I always knew I had the ability, it’s a matter of it coming together. I’m excited. I’m going to ride it as long as it lasts.”
For her match, Rolle wore an otherwise simple white outfit, with a picture of the New York skyline in glitter on the back. Williams’s sparkle came from her jewelry rather than her still-rusty game. Federer contributed little to the shininess of the evening, wearing an all-black outfit, including his socks.
For his part, Isner sticks to the gym-rat look, sweating through his shirts with ease. The shine in his game came from his smile, which like Rolle’s sparkled like an unlikely star on a new stage.