Posted on Thu, Aug. 30, 2007
Rolle thanks parents for sacrifice
BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN
The Grandstand Court is the U.S. Open's version of off-Broadway. It's where up-and-comers try to prove they belong, where they often get noticed by agents and clothing sponsors, where television cameras rarely venture.
On Wednesday, multimillionaires Serena and Venus Williams got through ho-hum matches on Center Court in front of a national television audience, and Rafael Nadal's sore knees got huge coverage. Meanwhile, 109th-ranked Ahsha Rolle of Miami Shores -- wearing a logo-less rhinestone-studded outfit designed by a friend -- won the biggest match of her life in The Grandstand.
She collapsed onto the court and looked to the evening sky after her 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 upset of 57th-ranked Italian Karin Knapp.
The win advances her to the third round, new territory for the 22-year-old third-year pro.
''It's amazing, unreal. I always knew I could win at this level,'' said Rolle, who is of Bahamian descent and the second cousin of current Baltimore Ravens and former Miami Beach and FSU cornerback Samari Rolle.
Fidgeting in their seats and whispering prayers before every critical point were Rolle's parents, Sharon and Leon, who have spent almost every cent of their savings to bankroll their daughter's dream. Sharon, a retired pharmaceutical representative, cashed in her 401K a few years ago when there was no other way to get Ahsha to tournaments and private lessons.
''We have sacrificed a lot of time and money, but tonight, it was definitely worth it and God answered our prayers,'' Sharon Rolle said. ``I have often talked with my husband about our naiveté, how we had no idea what we were getting into when Ahsha said she wanted to be a pro tennis player. We just thought you go play tennis and make money. We had no idea how expensive it was.''
Sharon and Leon, a retired attorney who now manages Overtown folk artist Purvis Young, spent between $30,000 and $50,000 per year for about five years before the U.S. Tennis Association stepped in to help in 2005.
They often put bills on hold and gave up family vacations so that Ahsha -- the middle child of five -- could travel to junior competitions and second-tier tournaments in places like Pelham, Alabama.
Most of the family was in the Grandstand on Wednesday, yelling ''Go Rolle!'' and ''Go Mop!,'' a nickname they gave Ahsha back when she wore a high fluffy ponytail that she dyed light brown. Grandma Charlotte was there, and younger sisters, Tiya, and Ashley.
Her two older brothers couldn't attend because they were working. Keyon, 31, is a corrections officer and Rolando, 30, is a firefighter. Ahsha is well aware what her parents have done for her, which is why she feels sad when she loses.
''I don't want to let them down after all they have sacrificed,'' she said.
In addition to the financial drain, there were countless hours in the car, driving to lessons on the public courts of the Miami Shores Tennis Center, Moore Park in Allapattah, Morningside Park, Claude Pepper Park, and the Tennis Center of Crandon Park.
''I've worked so hard to get here, and it's good that my hard work is finally paying off,'' said Rolle, who carries a Bible onto the court. ``I'm not surprising myself. I always knew I had the ability. It's just now that it's coming to pass. I'm ready to ride it as long as it will go.'
Her next opponent is Kateryna Bondarenko, who upset 15th seed Dinara Safina. Rolle's coach, Ola Malmqvist, believes she has what it takes to advance even further.
''Ahsha has a nice all-court game and she made the final in a Bronx tournament last week, which gave her a lot of confidence,'' said Malmqvist. ``Everything is starting to fall into place.''
Rolle is thrilled she will get at least one more day's wear out of her outfit, which she saved from last year and washes between each match.
A friend in Miami Beach connected her with a woman who designs costumes for Dancing with the Stars and she decorated the back of Rolle's shirt with a New York skyline made of small rhinestones.
''I lost in the first round last year, so the outfit didn't get too sweaty and I figured I'd bring it back,'' she said. ``I'll keep washing it and wearing it as long as I stay alive.
But she would love to someday be outfitted by a sportswear company, and hopes this U.S. Open run opens doors.
''I have no sponsor, no free clothing, only rackets from Wilson,'' she said. ``Girls ranked way lower than me are sponsored by Nike, and a lot of them don't even need the money because they come from rich homes. Then there are people like me, with the same talent, struggling. I don't understand it, but maybe now things will be different.''
She has seen a few signs already that she has reached a new level on tour.
Rolle said after her first-round win that she was disappointed Venus Williams had never spoken to her when they crossed paths in the locker room. But that changed.
'She said `Hi' to me two days in a row now,'' Rolle said. And she broke into a huge grin. ``It's amazing.''