Around the age of four-years-old, Stephanie Yakoff can recall getting her first tennis racket from her older brother Stan.
“I thought that this may be something that I’d like to try,” said Yakoff. “And that’s really when I first started getting into tennis.”
Yakoff immediately took to the sport and had a clear and natural talent for it, and that was evident once she began competing in tournaments.
“I realized that tennis was something I had a talent for,” said Yakoff. “I enjoyed the rush; I loved competing.”
Growing up, she did a little bit of swimming and ballet, both of which she says have helped improve her footwork and fitness as she decided to focus solely on tennis.
Fast-forward and the Fort Lee, N.J. native has turned into one of the top young tennis players in the country.
She will be entering her freshman year at Fort Lee High School this fall, where she plans to play for the school team. A blue-chip recruit, she currently sits as the seventh-ranked player in the nation for players in the Class of 2023, and the top-ranked girl in New Jersey and second-ranked in the Mid-Atlantic Region.
Her tournament exploits are the primary reason for those high rankings, as Yakoff has already racked up wins at some of the nation’s most prestigious junior events. A key win early in her career came at the “Little Mo” Internationals in Forest Hills, N.Y., as she captured both the singles and doubles titles back in 2014.
Last year, she won the singles and doubles titles at the USTA Girls 12s Winter National Championships in Tucson, Ariz., earning her first two Gold Balls.
What made those victories all the more impressive was the injury she had to overcome in the months leading up to the tournament, which demonstrates her resiliency and ability to bounce back.
“Before that tournament I had golfer and tennis elbow for about three months,” said Yakoff. “That was so difficult. I spent a lot of time away from tennis, and when I started again I had to almost start from scratch.”
But as she recovered from the injury, Yakoff’s work ethic allowed her to return to form, which was on display during her dominant week in Arizona. That determination and dedication is evident in her training as she spends time at both CourtSense Training Center in New Jersey as well as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens.
“The coaches have been great at both places, both technically and tactically,” Yakoff said.
Yakoff spends a majority of her time at CourtSense, where she has been since around the age of nine. She began by just taking private lessons from the facility’s coaches, and after a year, she became a member and has become one of the academy’s top players.
An indication of that is some of the outstanding results she has compiled at some of the country’s top tournaments, including reaching the singles semifinals at the Easter Bowl back in March, and earning a Bronze Ball while playing up in age at the USTA Girls 14s National Championships in Rome, Ga.
“The game is starting to become more physical, and I’m starting to play more against older kids in higher divisions,” said Yakoff. “So I definitely need to keep getting stronger and faster, and continue working on my hand-eye coordination.”
Most recently, Yakoff powered her way to the title at the TennisRecruiting.Net National Showcase Championships at Cornell University. Competing against girls a few years older than her in the Girls 18s draw, she won four matches including coming from a set down to win the championship.
“She is a very strong person and she has an arsenal of weapons,” said Saul Salazar, Director of High Performance of CourtSense at Bogota Racquet Club, and Yakoff’s coach. “She can really do anything she wants with the ball and has a lot of variety; can hit angles, drop shots, winners, etc. She’s a very smart player and can build points quite easily. Her mental strength is what makes her stand out as a player, and she is able to play against any type of player which makes her a very adaptable competitor.”
While tennis is often an individual sport, Yakoff has also been very successful in helping lead teams to victories. In 2018, she was integral in leading Team Eastern to a win at the Boys and Girls 14s USTA Zone Team Championships (Zonals) in Kalamazoo, Mich.
At the Big Apple International Cup, she helped lead the 12U team to a win last year in the competition that, in addition to the United States, featured teams from Canada, Spain and Mexico. This past year, she was named the MVP of the tournament as she led the United States’ 14U team to the title, as the competition added teams from Brazil and Israel.
In the last couple of years, Yakoff says she has really added balance to her game which has created a more well-rounded attack for her, and has helped her in being able to compete with older girls in more top-level tournaments and divisions.
“As I’ve gotten stronger and faster, I’ve started attacking the ball more than I did when I was younger,” said Yakoff. “I like transitioning, especially going to the net and utilizing more approach shots.”
Yakoff isn’t just well-rounded on the court, but also off the court, as she takes her academics very serious. In her last two years at Lewis F. Cole Middle School in Fort Lee, she was honored by the President’s Education Awards Program for her Outstanding Academic Achievement.
Being able to succeed both on and off the court is not something easily done, and no high-level junior athlete can accomplish things all on their own. Yakoff has had a solid foundation and support system behind her which has helped her along the way. She is fully sponsored by both Fila and Head, and has been since her run to both the singles and doubles finals of last year’s Easter Bowl.
“I love the support from Fila and Head. It’s been incredible,” she said. “And my family, relatives and all of my coaches who are helping throughout my journey to hopefully being a professional one day. I’ve had so many people help me.”
Yakoff is equal parts talented and humble, which is an important combination when navigating a road that oftentimes is filled with speed bumps along the way. She has goals of playing college tennis, with the ultimate goal of turning professional.
Until then, Yakoff will continue to use the work ethic that has carried her this far to keep growing as a player and person.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com