It has been three years since Hailey Baptiste last played a tournament in D.C., but as her practice serves tattoo the hard court surface of Rock Creek Park Tennis Center — site of this week’s Citi Open — Baptiste feels right at home.
Or most notably, when Baptiste, as a 17-year-old, seemingly announced her presence in women’s tennis by upsetting then-No. 17 Madison Keys in the first round of the 2019 Citi Open.
“I don’t really believe in magic or things like that, but it’s hard to put into words what these courts and this city have meant to me and my career,” Baptiste said. “With all of the familiar faces in the crowd, it’s like having a home-field advantage or something. Good things just always seem to happen to me here.”
With the women’s portion of the Citi Open making its return following a two-year hiatus, Baptiste hopes her home-court advantage will lead to another formative experience Monday as her first-round draw pits her against No. 7 Jessica Pegula.
Baptiste, 20, finds herself in a much different position than the previous time she played in the nation’s capital. After knocking off Keys in 2019, she seemed poised for a trip to the upper echelons of the women’s rankings. But her growth hasn’t exactly been linear.
Since becoming a full-time pro in January 2020, Baptiste has struggled to play consistently as the coronavirus pandemic has upended schedules and nagging injuries have kept her sidelined.
“It’s been a frustrating route for me, to say the least,” Baptiste said. “When you dream of being a professional tennis player as a 9-year-old, you never account for the difficult parts of that journey. You just assume that it’ll go for you like it did for Serena [Williams] or [Rafael] Nadal. But being a pro is really tough, and each day presents a new challenge.”
Baptiste’s greatest challenge is making enough money to break even. Her No. 148 ranking doesn’t equate to a large salary after accounting for expenses.
With no sponsorships, Baptiste has been forced to make some tough sacrifices, such as sharing hotel rooms with other players, flying out for tournaments at odd hours, skipping meals from time to time and going without a consistent coach.
Baptiste has earned $175,288 in 2022, before taxes, but said she has had to shell out more than $130,000 in expenses.
“Don’t get me wrong — I’m blessed to be a professional tennis player — but it’s impossible not to look at other sports and think about what life as a top-150 player would be like,” Baptiste said. “I chose this sport and I understand that you have to win to make money, so don’t think I’m out here looking for sympathy or anything. [I’m] just telling you the reality of the sport.”
Baptiste’s mother, Shari Dishman, has cashed in thousands of dollars’ worth of inherited bonds and stocks and even dipped into her retirement fund to assist in keeping her daughter’s dream afloat. At the same time, Baptiste’s father serves as her day-to-day manager.
“For me, it’s a family affair,” Dishman said. “Before I had Hailey, I planned to move to New York and work in the fashion industry. So I know what it’s like to give up on your dreams and have those nagging thoughts about what could’ve been. I will do whatever it takes to ensure that my only child never has to deal with that.”
Baptiste is not alone, said Martin Blackman, the general manager of player development for the U.S. Tennis Association. While the various tennis federations provide some players with financial assistance, making ends meet is a real concern for any player ranked outside of the top 50.
“It’s a tough go in the beginning because there’s a lot of expenses ... that tennis players must account for when navigating through the lower levels of the pro circuit,” Blackman said. “Luckily for Hailey, she has all of the talent and ability to be a regular participant in the major tournaments, which over time will lighten her financial burdens. It’s our belief that Hailey will become one of those top 50 players in the near future.”
When healthy, Baptiste has already proved capable of being a top-50 talent. In May, she won three straight qualifiers at the French Open to reach the main draw before retiring in the first round with an injury.
“If I can just get healthy and comfortable, I know that I am capable of being one of the best in this sport,” Baptiste said. “I think that being back in D.C. for the Citi Open and some home cooking is exactly what the doctor ordered.”