When she was eight-years-old, Sabrina Xiong decided to go with her older sister to the Arthur Ashe Kids Day at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Xiong, like any little sister, just went because her older sibling was going.
But while there, a young Xiong developed a love for tennis that has taken her to where she is today.
“I started playing tennis when I was eight, when a family friend asked us to go to the Arthur Ashe Kids Day,” recalls Xiong. “I saw all the professional players playing and all the kids my age were having such an amazing time. Just watching them play sparked my passion for the sport.”
After attending Kids Day, Xiong decided to join her sister in taking lessons at the National Tennis Center. The coaches and pros immediately saw the talent she possessed, and her confidence began to grow from there.
“The coaches there saw that I had some kind of talent and they kept putting me into the more advanced levels,” said Xiong. “At that time, I was just taking lessons, I had no tournament experience. I didn’t start playing tournaments until I was 10 or 11, and that was only playing like once every two months. I wasn’t that competitive yet and didn’t even know what sections were at that time.”
Xiong began playing in sectional events when she was about 12-years-old. It didn’t start off with all victories as she lost in the opening round of her first few tournaments, but she stuck with it and her game continued to improve.
“I just kept playing and never gave up,” said Xiong. “I always had a passion for tennis. And I think because I love tennis so much, I just continued to play and worked hard no matter what.”
That work ethic and passion drove Xiong to get better, and indeed she did. As her tournament wins started to add up, so did her ranking.
One of the biggest turning points of Sabrina’s career came in the summer of 2012, as the John McEnroe Tennis Academy (JMTA) offered a full scholarship to one boy and one girl. Taking her mother’s suggestion, Xiong decided to go to the tryouts because she thought it may be fun and a good idea to go and compete with some of the top junior players.
While she attended the tryouts, she did not expect to be the last girl standing, but she made it all the way through the cuts and was granted the full scholarship to train at JMTA.
“When I heard my name and found out that I received the full scholarship, I was really shocked and happy at the same time,” said Xiong. “All of my hard work had finally paid off, and it was also a key confidence booster. Once I started playing at JMTA, my game started to improve so much. The coaches there are so amazing and care so much about you. I’ve never been to an academy as good and as intense as JMTA. It’s honestly become my second home. I’m so happy and appreciative to have been given the opportunity there.”
With her tennis improving and her confidence growing, Xiong was ready to take her game to the next level. Her results kept getting better and she began to win sectional tournaments, eventually moving on to nationals.
In her junior season, Xiong’s game peaked. She knew she was good, but this was the season that told her she was good enough to play with the best girls in the country. She played and won the National Open in Boston, proving to herself that she was one of the top players nationwide.
“What really hit me that year was when I won my first national in Boston,” she recalls. “I think that’s one of my best moments and best accomplishments of my junior career. It was the first national I ever won, and I had won sectionals before and those are a big deal, but winning a national is completely different. You’re playing against the best girls in the nation. I proved to myself that I was good enough, and that is a huge deal in tennis. From that I grew a lot and gained a lot of experience and confidence.”
What was even bigger about the title was that it was during her junior year of high school while she was looking at colleges. Since the tournament was in Boston, Harvard Women’s Head Tennis Coach Traci Green was in attendance.
Xiong got numerous offers and looked at a lot of schools while trying to decide where she wanted to go. She knew she wanted to go to an Ivy League school, and so she decided to take her tennis career to Cambridge, Mass. to play for Coach Green at Harvard.
After making her second unofficial visit there, Xiong made up her mind and knew Harvard was where she wanted to be.
“I just thought Harvard was the best school for me, I don’t think you can beat Harvard,” said Xiong. “What I’m most excited about is just the community there … to be part of such an amazing team and an amazing community. The school itself is just incredible.
I’m just excited to meet all the awesome people there. There’s so many people from all different places, internationally and different states. They have all their own unique talents and characteristics.”
She understands that playing a sport at an Ivy League school will be a challenge, but says she is used to balancing tennis with her academics.
“Time management is definitely going to be a crucial part of being on the tennis team and keeping up with my school work. But I guess you could say I’ve had training in the field,” Xiong said jokingly. “I’ve been doing this for so long now. All throughout my junior career, I’ve been managing academics and tennis. I’ve talked to so many freshman and girls on the team already and they told me that I’ll be fine. I’m concerned about it, but not too much because I have the experience.”
Before she goes off to Harvard, Xiong hopes to bring a city championship to her current team at Cardozo High School. The Lady Judges have fallen short in the city title match against Beacon in the last two seasons and are out to finally get over that hump this spring.
“I’m just looking forward to the playoffs,” said Xiong. “We came up a little short in the last couple of years. Hopefully, we can pull it out this year, we have a great team. I’m just looking forward to playing with them and hopefully taking home the trophy.”
The team atmosphere of playing tennis for your school is something that Xiong really embraces.
“Tennis is an individual sport, so just having a team aspect to it is different and it makes it a lot more exciting,” she said. “Having someone there cheering you on and supporting you, it’s not something that happens every day in tennis. That’s definitely something I’m going to miss.”
Xiong continues to train at JMTA with her coach Felix Alvarado. The two have worked on adding more aggressiveness to her game to compliment her strong play from back on the baseline.
“I’m not a power player, I’m not 6’0” tall or anything,” said Xiong about her style of play. “I don’t have the power weapons a lot of the other players have. For me, I was always a counter-puncher. I was really good back at the baseline and just being consistent was the strongest part of my game. As I’ve grown older and stronger, I’ve tried to develop more of an aggressive game. I have been working a lot on going to the net and using the net to my advantage.”
In addition, Xiong said that she focused a lot on improving her fitness this off-season. The trainers at the JMTA develop a player-specific training schedule, which has helped her increase her fitness and conditioning.
Alvarado, who has worked with some of the top players in the section, sees a lot of the same traits in Xiong that he has seen in previous players he has coached.
“Her dedication and work ethic are the two things that I see they all have in common,” said Alvarado. “They are goal-oriented and they work very hard to achieve their goals. I know Sabrina will work very hard to be ready for the summer tournaments and the fall season at Harvard.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org