The Journeys of Jennifer Elie
(October 2, 2018) CHICAGO – “Hi, I’m Jennifer Elie and I’m from Brooklyn, New York.”
It was a treat for me to get some time to interview Jennifer Elie last month, and not just because our last names rhyme. I’d followed her career for several years, and yet knew very little of her back story. Here was my chance to learn more.
We were on the South Side of Chicago, in the hallway of the classroom area of the XS Tennis and Education Foundation, host to the inaugural Chicago Oracle Challenger, outside the temporary WTA office. Elie, then 31 (now 32), had not lasted long in the tournament, a combined men’s and women’s event that was part of Oracle’s effort to increase the number of high, (but not highest) level professional events in the United States. She had lost in a tight two sets (6-2, 7-6(6)) to Sesil Karatantcheva, Elie’s “best friend since childhood,” a former Top 40 player who advanced to the main draw, only to lose in the second round to eventual champion and current Top 40 player Petra Martic. There are no easy matches at this level.
How does a Brooklyn girl with Haitian parents end up becoming besties with a Bulgarian girl? For one, she traveled overseas a lot as a junior player. By herself. At age 13, her father put her on a plane by herself and said, “Go!”
“My mom worked for the airlines,” she explained, “so it was free to go overseas and play,” while USTA junior tournaments meant her whole family would have to travel. Even the entry fees were more affordable, “like $40 whereas [USTA] nationals were like $100 to $200.”
Elie enjoyed her international journeys. “At first I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do it alone.’ But then, yeah, it was good. Met so many people. So many players that are like Top 100 now, we’ve been playing juniors together since we were younger.”
Elie reached a world junior high of No. 79 in 2004. She decided to forego college tennis, choosing online schooling instead, and started play on the ITF pro circuit, where she’s spent most of the last 15 years. To date, she has won six titles at the $10K (now $15K) level, three of them (two singles and a doubles) in a two-week span in Caracas, Venezuela in April 2012.
2012 was one of the best years in Elie’s career. In addition to the Venezuela titles, that July she found herself playing a memorable first round match against Madison Keys at the $50K tournament in Lexington, KY. Although Elie lost that 6-4, 6-3, the next week, she beat Lauren Davis to qualify for her sole WTA main draw at the Citi Open in Washington, DC, where she fell to Vania King 6-3, 6-4.
But it was 2011 in which Elie played the match that immediately came up as her most memorable moment. Back at the Lexington $50K, Elie faced future superstar Sloane Stephens.
Stephens, whom Elie had known since she was a very young Sloane. Stephens, who just the year before had won three doubles majors and who had by now qualified for the French Open and reached the Top 125. Stephens: the same player who would in 2017 beat Keys in the final of the U.S. Open. (“I love watching them; I’m always cheering for them and wanting them to do well so it’s nice, seeing from where they started until now, how great they’re doing.“)
Elie beat (future) major champion and World No. 3 Sloane Stephens 6-2, 7-6(6).
The identical score by which she would lose to her own best friend in 2018 in Chicago in a facility stewarded by Stephens’ coach, Kamau Murray.
Some other career highlights: In 2015, Elie won 10 matches in the USTA National Playoffs to secure a berth in U.S. Open qualifying, in Queens, the borough in which she now lives. She fell to current WTA No. 45 Zhang Shuai 6-3 6-0. “I didn’t realize I would be so nervous,” she said, “because everybody came to watch me, because I was so excited … but it was a great experience.” And then following a terrific 17-8 run in the fall of 2016, Elie got her ranking high enough to be the final entrant into 2017 Australian Open qualifying, where she won a round against Catalina Pella of Argentina. That got her ranking up to No. 221, and she would later reach her career high of No. 219. Since then, she’s fallen back down to her current No. 472.
Tennis has involved many journeys for Jennifer Elie.
We talked a bit about what it meant to play in a place like XS, a beautiful facility that may be the only such Challenger-level host site in the world that is predominantly black-run, in a predominantly black neighborhood.
“It’s nice that they’re putting [the Chicago Oracle Challenger] in this area because then young black kids will see and maybe they’ll want to play tennis as well,” said Elie. “Tennis gives you so many opportunities, school or pro. You have chances. So I think it’s nice for them to see other black/African American players that are playing.”
Elie’s father, Kerner, is a self-taught player who played in college and is now a tennis pro. Elie said she goes back to Haiti nearly every year, noting there are relatively few tennis courts in the country. She’s one of four players of Haitian parentage in the WTA Top 500, the other three being Victoria Duval (No.264), Mari Osaka (No. 368) and Mari’s younger sister, reigning US Open champion Naomi. Elie’s family has known the Osakas’ family for years (“Very nice family,” she says).
Elie is continuing her journey this fall, sticking to US tournaments (this week she’s at the $60K in Stockton, California). She clearly enjoys what she does, and remains an apostle of tennis. I asked what she would say to juniors who may not end up at the highest echelons of the sport but would still like to make a career of it.
“I say go follow your dreams and try,” she said. “It’s always good to go out and try and see what you can do. I feel like you have so many options with tennis: schooling, pro, coaching, so I think it’s a great sport for everybody.”
Jonathan Kelley is in Chicago and covered the Oracle Challenger Series tournament for Tennis Panorama News.