Serena Williams won her sixth Wimbledon crown this summer and edges closer to Grand Slam grail with each match. And while the 33-year-old tennis ace makes winning look easy, those following in her footsteps know the hard work it takes to get there.
For the past seven years, Alexandra “Xan” Riley, the first black woman tennis player from Philadelphia to be internationally ranked, has been traveling the globe, playing in international tennis tournaments to improve her ranking. Her goal is to make it to the Top 100 in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour in the next five years.
“There’s a lot of time spent at airports and long layovers, but in tennis, overseas is where the opportunities are.”
Out of 3,000 tennis ranked players in the world, Riley, a 24-year-old native of Philadelphia, ranks 796 in singles and 615 in doubles. Unlike Williams and other top players who have sponsorships and millions of advertising dollars rolling in, Riley’s travel and other tennis-related expenses are paid for by her father, Eric Riley, and so the family is actively seeking sponsors.
The first black tennis co-captain at an Ivy League School (University of Pennsylvania), Eric Riley spent eight years on the ATP Tour, competing in 18 countries and maintaining a world ranking in singles and doubles from 1984 to 1991. He began coaching his daughter when she expressed an interest in tennis as a child. By the age of 14, he says she was able to beat all of her adult competitors.
For the past 20 years, he has coached tennis superstars including Kathy Jordan, Lisa Raymond and Hall of Famer Pam Shriver. As both a former player and a coach who recognizes talent, Riley believes Xan has what it takes to be a successful pro tennis player.
“Xan is a gutsy and tenacious player,” Riley says. “And she’s also resilient. Whether she wins a tournament or loses, she sticks with the game.”
Xan Riley started touring the world when she was 17. In the past seven years, she has played in over 30 countries around the world, and reached more than 30 quarterfinal finishes (singles/doubles) on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Pro Circuit, a stepping stone to the WTA tour.
“It can be lonely sometimes since I travel by myself and I’m away from family and friends for weeks at a time,” Riley says. “There’s a lot of time spent at airports and long layovers, but in tennis, overseas is where the opportunities are.”
There are also setbacks: In 2012, Riley suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in her knee, and wasn’t able to play tennis for six months, losing her rankings in singles and doubles. While many players might have thrown in the towel, Riley returned to the tennis courts with a vengeance.
“I’ve been trying to stay healthy and injury-free, and in the past year, I have improved my ranking 200-plus spots in the WTA world rankings,” Riley says. “I play mostly on the ITF Pro Circuit to build my ranking so that I can play more top tier WTA events. My goal is to be in the top 50 in the near future.”
Making Her Father Proud
Diversity in tennis has evolved since Riley’s father played the game. Today Riley is one of many players of color on the circuit.
Her travel schedule sees her playing abroad for six to eight weeks, then returning home to spend a week in Philadelphia. In the last several months, Riley has traveled to Egypt, France, Brazil, Portugal and Uzbekistan.
“It can be challenging traveling to unfamiliar countries that have different languages, different food, and different currency,” Riley says. “The prize money I win isn’t substantial, but it’s a stepping stone to the big tour.”
Her father believes that his daughter will be playing in the top tiers within the next five years.
“The average age of women playing tennis in the top 50 today is 28,” he says. “Xan is getting stronger with each tournament.”
He’s right. This summer Riley won a singles tournament in France and she has previously reached a pro circuit doubles final. She ends each night by texting her father before bedtime.
“My dad is my coach,” Riley says. “If I could have insight from anyone else, I'd pick Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, because they are two of the most mentally tough athletes in the world. They’ve also shown that through hard work and dedication, anything is possible.”