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  • Jay Klein

Serving for Change: Alafia Ayeni’s Game Gives Others a Shot

Over quarantine, Alafia Ayeni (‘21) has started learning Russian; been heavily involved in the BLM movement, coordinating protests, performing research, and gathering data; and regularly practices the piano after picking up the skill on campus when he “saw an abundance of pianos and not really an abundance of piano players.”

Oh, and he plays tennis too.

The #3 recruit in the nation upon arriving at Cornell, Ayeni started playing tennis at 5 years old thanks to his father and a stroke of good fortune, which launched his now blossoming career.

“My sister used to play, and there was one day basketball practice got canceled, and my dad – you know – being my dad, [said] I have to practice something, so he just took me to the tennis court with my sister, and one of my sister’s coaches saw me playing around with the racquet and offered free lessons.”

Ayeni split his time between basketball and tennis before deciding to focus solely on the latter when he reached the age of 10, quickly becoming a dominant player in both his home state of California and the larger U.S. tennis community. By ninth grade, Ayeni was already the 7th best player in the nation for his age group and steadily improved his ranking throughout high school. Among other things, his rise and sustained success can be attributed to a style of play that leverages his 6’3 muscular build, leaving opponents on the defensive.

I’m a very large guy, very aggressive person. I try to attack my opponents, keep putting pressure on them…[and] come to the net a lot.

His imposing figure, combined with natural talent and an intense dedication, resulted in endless collegiate suitors and historic tennis powerhouses recruiting Ayeni to their teams. Yet, he still chose Cornell because of their academic prowess and distinctive coaching mindset.

“I was planning to go to one of the really good tennis schools – like Illinois or Wake Forest or Stanford, someone who has established themselves as people who win titles. Cornell has a very solid team and really good coach but they haven’t established themselves as a force yet, and then I got into Cornell. It was the only Ivy I got into.

Just gaining acceptance to a prestigious Ivy League university on its own, however, was not enough to convince Ayeni.

I also really liked the coach Silviu Tanasoiu, how he approaches everything in general, he makes the most of everything we have, and it really resonated with me because you don’t necessarily have to have a huge budget or the best equipment you just need to have the right attitude, and I think that the team has the right attitude.

That perspective has proved all the more valuable, having been faced with challenge after challenge throughout his college career – from teammates involved in a car accident his freshman year, to his team plagued by injuries his sophomore season. To that end, Alafia has said, “Cornell Tennis is just such a symbol of overcoming, struggling and overcoming,” and after countless obstacles, the team’s success this year “was a long time coming.”

By the end of the shortened season, Cornell Men’s tennis clinched the ECAC (Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference) Championships, their first national championship in about 10 years; achieved their highest ranking ever; and attained the highest ranking at the end of a season in the program’s history.

Of all his accomplishments and accolades at Cornell, Alafia easily singled out winning the ECAC Championship as his greatest, perhaps because the tournament acted as a culmination of the tenacity and determination that has defined the team and enabled their success.

I had a really tough week, tough loss the day before, and came back and really played well, so I’m proud of myself for that.

Less than a month after the historic victory, however, the Ivy League cancelled all spring sports, both depriving the 2019-2020 team of continuing their record-breaking season and Alafia of an often overlooked aspect of the game that he enjoys:

[I miss] the travel, meeting people, improving your influence – experiences that tennis has given me that I would never have gotten anywhere else.”

But, if anyone could handle the uncertainty of COVID-19 – and the ensuing challenges that the pandemic would bring – it would be Ayeni, who has become well-versed in successfully dealing with such obstacles. And he did just that, finding creative ways to continue training and improving.

We have a weight rack at home ‘cause my dad was an American football player on the Dallas Cowboys reserve team for a year, he kept up with lifting. I went home for two months, and I’d be pretty much lifting everyday, and I just did 3-a-day workouts. I would only spend about an hour or so on court, so I was just kind of improving my fitness. We had to go to an abandoned hotel to play tennis, so that was a little tough, but you got to overcome it. And sprint training I had to use a parking lot, so I would mark off each parking space about 5 yards and do it that way.

All of the hard work will be vital for Ayeni as he plans to travel and play on the professional tour once quarantine restrictions subside. These tournaments, however, are a far cry from the community and camaraderie that Ayeni has with fellow teammates. On tour, for one, he looks like an outsider.

I’ve played on the professional tour and traveled around and I’m shocked by how little [African American] representation there is. There’s athletic people in every ethnicity that [one would think] there would be pretty equal representation.

Discussing why men’s tennis is so undiverse and homogenous, Alafia cites the cost and hectic travel schedule, which makes potential players wary of living away and alone for extended periods at a time. Perhaps more importantly, however, he talks about the perception of the sport.

There’s this aura of exclusivity around it [tennis], much like golf, or equestrian activities. There’s…also a stigma within the African American and minority community. We don’t view it as a ‘real’ sport. We view it as something that is for white people. I’ve heard a lot of people telling me “why don’t you play basketball, why don’t you play football.” That’s the most common thing that people say and, for me, it shows that I’m not expected to play tennis and people who look like me are not expected to play tennis.

But, that’s exactly the reason he keeps playing – attempting to overcome yet another obstacle, even if the scope of this one is far greater than any one team or person and requires dismantling entrenched stereotypes and reforming outdated beliefs.

Obviously I love competing and everything, but if I can get to a point where I can win Wimbledon, for example. Only one black men has ever won Wimbledon, that’s Arthur Ashe, so I want to make history in that sense, where I’m kind of blazing the way and trying to normalize tennis as a sport for everyone…[Similar to] how Serena and Venus [burst on the scene] and won everything, and now there’s actually quite a bit of representation in the African American female community in terms of tennis, there needs to be a male Serena and Venus, basically.

While his aspirations may appear lofty, Ayeni has already begun “blazing the way” for the Big Red. Together with teammate and captain Evan Bynoe, they are the first African American players in the history of the Cornell men’s tennis program. Ayeni adds, “for a school whose motto is any person, any study, it is a little bit surprising.” An argument can be made that the lack of black players is simply a reflection of how little African American representation there is in men’s tennis, but that probably fails to capture the entire picture. Whatever the reason, Alafia is on a quest to effect change and actively uses his platform for good.

I do see myself as an ambassador in tennis, and I use my social media platforms as a sounding board for information. I don’t try to push any agendas because it’s not who I am, but I do love to make people aware of what is going on; if I see something that is just factual, then I’ll of course share it because there’s a lot of people who actually listen and respect athletes, so I want to use my status as an athlete that people know.

When asked about his legacy, Ayeni responded only that he wanted to make it simpler for fans to attend matches through the implementation of a game-day shuttle service for those without private transportation – a great idea, indeed, that could ease spectators’ logistical burdens and create a more lively atmosphere. But, Ayeni’s legacy has already been cemented by accomplishing so much more than the benefit that any one material addition could ever provide: He has broken a barrier and is a trailblazer for change both on and off the court.

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