Like other junior tennis players of her caliber, Prim Siripipat once had dreams of hoisting a Grand Slam trophy in front of thousands of adoring fans. On her college bio at Duke, Siripipat wrote that her ultimate ESPN SportsCenter highlight would be of her “winning a major tournament like the U.S. Open.”
But injuries and a burgeoning broadcast journalism career altered those ambitions and her competitive tennis career fizzled after college graduation, and with it came the sudden ending of a chapter that Siripipat started as a precocious 7-year-old in Mexico, Mo.
Or at least that’s what she thought.
An unexpected layoff from ESPN in April has given Siripipat the chance to go all-in on professional tennis 15 years after competing in her last pro tournament. This time, Siripipat said, she wants to end it the right way.
“I felt I didn’t go down fighting,” Siripipat, 36, said recently in a phone interview. “It was just so anticlimactic. … I started my career in broadcasting, and I never really took the time to properly say goodbye to the sport.”
It was around May of last year that a feeling of disappointment about how her tennis career ended began gnawing at Siripipat. When her then-fiance asked her if she would play again if she had the opportunity to do it all over, Siripipat burst into tears.
So she began to train, fitting in tennis around her hectic schedule. She woke up at 4:50 a.m. for one to two hours of practice before heading over to the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn. An hour of strength and conditioning would follow. Sometimes she would get home at 2 a.m., just hours before waking up and repeating the process.
Her husband, Ben Aronson, whom Siripipat married in March, suggested that they film the journey for an upcoming documentary titled “Second Life.” Originally slated to finish in June, Siripipat plans to continue competing at least through the rest of the year before reassessing.
“Had I stayed at ESPN, I probably would’ve ended the project in June, just because it was getting so difficult,” Siripipat said. “So I really do think that things happen for a reason. The universe or whoever you want to call it has a larger plan ahead of us, and I think I was definitely meant to do this in this period of my life, for whatever reason.”
Siripipat now splits her time between Connecticut and Wesley Chapel, Fla., where she trains at her old academy, Saddlebrook Preparatory School.
Earlier this month, Siripipat was the speaker at Saddlebrook’s class of 2017 graduation ceremony. At the time she still wasn’t sure how long her return to tennis would last but was encouraged by her progress and the advice from her former coach and the academy’s director of coaching, Alvaro Betancur, who told her to not impose a time-limit on her comeback.
“I said, ‘Listen, Prim, a couple of months is too short,’ ” Betancur, a former top 70 player in the world, said. “If you want to do it, go a little bit longer. … Or one day when you’re older you’ll ask why I didn’t go a little bit longer. … Look at how many players on the tour today are 35, 36, 37 and playing unbelievable.”
So far, Siripipat has yet to pick up a victory at the pro level, losing in the first round of qualifiers at International Tennis Federation tournaments in Wesley Chapel and Victoria, British Columbia.
But her coaches see plenty of promise and are optimistic about her chances to win a few matches. Steve Rogers, Siripipat’s coach when she’s in Connecticut and a former hitting partner for WTA players, compares her skills to those of Daniela Hantuchová, a 34-year-old former top five pro.
“Prim can do anything I ask the very first time,” Rogers said. “She’s extremely coordinated, a very athletic person and just an amazing athlete.”
Siripipat has also embraced all the advances in training and recovery methods that weren’t available when she was a top 10 junior in the country in the late 1990s. She recently posted a photo of herself on social media halfway submerged in an ice bath — “In college, I only remember the football players doing it,” she said — and also hired a nutritionist for the first time in her career.
Mentally, she wants to be less hard on herself and serve as an inspiration for both junior tennis players on how difficult the journey can be and for athletes transitioning to life after retirement from athletics. In the process, Siripipat will continue to chase certain goals — winning a match, getting a WTA ranking and, more importantly, finding the feeling of closure, of ending her tennis career on her own terms.
“I know that’s a very ephemeral goal,” Siripipat said. “It’s a feeling and I don’t think I’ll know I’m there until I get to that point.”