Ayana Akli, here in 2018, won the Maryland girls’ singles title for the third year in a row, is headed to the University of Maryland after training with the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park. (Kelyn Soong/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park lives up to its name. In the 20 years since the doors to the training facility opened, dozens of youngsters have developed into junior and collegiate champs, with some becoming highly ranked pros.

Three players from the JTCC qualified for this year’s French Open: veteran grand slammers Frances Tiafoe, 21, from Hyattsville, and Denis Kudla, 26, from Arlington, along with Robin Montgomery, 14, from the District. (Robin jetted off to Paris to play in the junior championships last week, having just finished her freshman year at Friendship Public Charter School Collegiate Campus, an online curriculum.)

Tennis buffs like myself are awed by such talent. But even if you’re not a fan of the sport, you can still appreciate what goes into the making of a champion. Bodies strengthened, minds sharpened, spirits freed to pursue dreams. You might even imagine something like that happening in every school, not just a world-class tennis academy.

“When we say ‘winner,’ we mean someone who plays tennis in college,” said Ray Benton, chief executive of the champions center. “We do get players with the potential to turn pro. But most people don’t have that, and we can’t take someone with average skills and get them to Wimbledon. But we can take someone with average skills and get them playing well enough to win a tennis scholarship to college.”

At a recent ceremony honoring JTCC’s 14 high school graduates, students thanked their parents and coaches and named the colleges that they would be attending on tennis scholarships. Over the years, more than 270 of the junior players have landed over $20 million in tennis scholarships. They attend an array of schools — Virginia, Duke, Michigan, Illinois, Stanford, Florida, the list goes on.

Ayana Akli was headed for the University of Maryland. The ­
17-year-old Wheaton High graduate had capped off her senior year by winning the Maryland 4A girls’ tennis singles title — for the third year in a row.

Now, the two-time All-Met Player of the Year was ready to take her game to a new level. She would apply the same discipline, work ethic, problem solving and concentration skills honed at the JTCC. But not in pursuit of a grand slam title.

She plans to become a civil engineer.

“I want to start my own business and construct sustainable buildings in Third World countries,” she told me.

She’ll still play tennis, of course. And she’ll do it just for fun, she said — “Just to keep it going.”

“Tennis helped me learn to strategize, make decisions on the run and realize that putting in that extra work, making an extra effort, does pay off,” she added.

Taka Bertrand, a senior coach, started playing tennis at the JTCC the year it opened, then went on to play for Vanderbilt, where she set a record for winning the most singles matches in the school’s history. She noted that tennis scholarships for women were increasing — but so was the competition for them, with the best female tennis players from around the world being recruited to play for U.S. colleges.

The pressures to succeed can be intense. But in tennis, you find ways to deal with it. And there’s an added benefit for girls.

“You learn how to handle the pressure with grace, how to be confident and not afraid to express yourself,” Bertrand said. “In a world where gender inequality is still a problem, where you may have to assert yourself to get treated fairly, those can be valuable assets, on and off the court.”

For Akli, the JTCC had done exactly what it was set up to do. Make tennis a means to an end, a way into college. It helped her prepare for the academic rigors, as well as challenges on the courts.

The JTCC has its own school — a fully accredited online college preparatory program that students work on for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, with rigorous workouts and practice sessions in between.

“We may have 10 students in the same room from different grade levels working on different assignments,” said Mark Santangelo, director of the school. “It’s blended learning under the guidance of teachers but also with students teaching each other. Athletes don’t tend to be traditional learners, and if they are struggling, we want to be flexible enough to provide the help they need. Everybody grows together, even the teacher.”

Most students still attend traditional schools before coming to the JTTC in the afternoons for workouts and practice. Everybody graduates. And most everyone goes to college. Some like Tiafoe turn pro. He did it at age 17 and has already earned more than $2 million.

More than 3,000 youngsters have benefited from the tennis instruction at the facility, while another 5,000 have been introduced to the game through various community outreach programs. The center has produced 35 national junior champions; 90 in the top 100; 11 collegiate champions; and 15 pros.

And it’s all happening on a
15-acre spread, adjacent to the University of Maryland, in Prince George’s County.

“You look at all the young people who are going to college, all the emphasis on health and fitness, as well as the economic impact of the center, all of the new development going on around it,” said Rushern L. Baker III, a former county executive who serves on the JTCC board of directors. “What we have here is a jewel in the crown of Prince George’s.”

Sounds like a winner to me.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.