Hailey Baptiste flying high under the radar

Two years ago, Washington D.C. area tennis fans were abuzz with anticipation of seeing teen sensation Cori “Coco” Gauff perform at the Citi Open, following her improbable fourth-round run at the Wimbledon Championships, which included a stunning upset of her idol Venus Williams.

But when the curtains closed on opening day of the D.C. tennis tournament, it was another black teenager who had stolen the show.

While 15-year-old Gauff went down in defeat, a 17-year-old D.C. native named Hailey Baptiste knocked out the former world No. 7 and US Open finalist Madison Keys. It was Baptiste’s first time competing in the main draw of a Women’s Tennis Association tour-level event. She lost in the second round.

Unfortunately, Baptiste will not have an opportunity to thrill hometown fans when the Citi Open resumes after a pandemic-induced cancellation in 2020. That’s because the WTA pulled the plug on the women’s event.

Gauff and Baptiste – now 17 and 19 respectively — are part of the “next generation” of Americans set to make their mark on the women’s professional tour. Others include Whitney Osuigwe of Bradenton, Fla., who won the girls French Open title in 2017, a year before Gauff won it; Robin Montgomery, also a DC native; and Katrina Scott of California.

Baptiste and Gauff have known each other for several years and are good friends, each acknowledged in interviews following their respective matches at the 2019 Citi Open.

In fact, Baptiste said Gauff was “like family, so we know each other pretty well.”

Both players have reached new heights in the two years since their Citi Open appearance. But while Gauff’s rise has been well-chronicled — she now ranks just outside the WTA’s Top 20 — Baptiste’s progress has gained little notice.

In fact, if you search the WTA’s website for Baptiste’s player profile, you won’t find a bio or a photo, despite the fact she is now ranked inside the top 200, has a doubles title and has played in two major main-draw events. Nor will you find a photo or bio of her on the International Tennis Federation’s website, despite the fact she won three ITF championships in 2019 and was a two-time finalist in doubles, was ranked as high as No. 38 in the world as a junior and was a finalist in the 2018 US Open girls doubles tournament.  

Baptiste is enjoying her best year at the WTA level since turning pro in 2018. She reached her highest ranking of No. 164 in June after clinching her first main-draw victory in a major at Roland Garros, where she won three preliminary matches to qualify for the French Open. She received a wild card to play in the 2020 US Open, losing in the first round.

In April, Baptiste notched her first WTA title in Charleston, SC. She teamed with Caty McNally, Gauff’s regular doubles partner, to win the MUSC Health Women’s Open doubles crown. The week before, Baptiste made it to the second round of the Volvo Car Open in Charleston. And she qualified for the main draw at the Miami Open, one of the WTA’s premier events.

Baptiste’s 2021 record is 15-12 in singles. Her career record is 87 wins against 47 losses.

PARIS, FRANCE – JUNE 03: Hailey Baptiste of The United States plays a foreand during her women’s second round match against Sofia Kenin of The United States during day five of the 2021 French Open at Roland Garros on June 03, 2021 in Paris, France. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Baptiste played World Team Tennis for the New York Empire where she got to play doubles with former WTA No.1 Kim Clijsters.

Current year and career statistics on Baptiste are readily available online. What you won’t find are any current news clips or features that contain more background information on this obviously talented young player.

In her 2019 Citi Open post-match interview, Baptiste shared how she had been attending the tournament for years by sneaking in with the aid of workers.

“I knew some of the people who used to work here,” she said, “so they’d let me in the back gates.”

The D.C. native grew up just five minutes away from the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, where the Citi Open is held. She began playing tennis at age 4 and soon afterward enrolled in an after-school program operated by the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, the sole beneficiary of the Citi Open.

Baptiste quickly outgrew the WTEF program and moved on to the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, MD., one of the United States Tennis Association’s regional training sites. There, she became good friends with Francis Tiafoe, the 54th ranked men’s player in the world, who virtually grew up at the center where his dad served as head of maintenance.

But according to Baptiste’s mom, Shari Dishman, Baptiste had a difficult time adjusting to the college-like atmosphere at JTCC and suffered both academically and socially.

“She struggled to keep up in the classroom and with fitting in with the other student-athletes,” Dishman wrote in a 2017 “GoFundMe” page post. “Most of the kids that play tennis on this level are wealthy, this is not our family.”

Merritt Johnson, a black tennis pro from Washington, D.C., who was on the JTCC staff during Baptiste’s time there recalled her not getting along well with coaches.

“She’s a very talented player,” said Johnson, who now teaches at an academy in Seattle, “but she has this swagger that maybe rubs some people the wrong way.”

At the time Dishman posted her letter, the GoFundMe page had brought in $6,739 toward a goal of $25,000. Dishman said the money was needed to allow her and Baptiste’s dad, Quasim Baptiste, to travel to tournaments to support their daughter.

“Hailey has recognized that she does her best when we all travel as a team,” Dishman wrote.

Looking at Baptiste’s earnings, the traveling money may no longer be a concern.

So far this year, Baptiste has earned more than $164,000 in prize money, with nearly $100,000 coming from the French Open. Her career earnings exceed $333,000.

In an August 2020 interview with USOpen.org, Baptiste, who now trains at the USTA’s complex in Orlando, was asked when did she realize tennis would be her career. Here was her response:

“I never really thought it wasn’t going to be my career. It was never in my head to go to school. I’ve always wanted to be a professional tennis player.”

It is hard to cast doubt on the future success of someone who exudes that kind of confidence.

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