Tennis player Kristie Ahn delivering aces on social media during pandemic

Helene Elliott
Kristie Ahn is a winner on social media during the coronavirus shutdown.  (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

The professional tennis tours froze their rankings in March, when the coronavirus outbreak brought sports to a halt, but Kristie Ahn has reached new heights of fame without playing a set.

Ahn, a Stanford graduate who made an exhilarating run to the fourth round of the U.S. Open last year, is winning raves from fellow players for the creative, tennis-themed videos she has been posting on TikTok and Instagram. Whether lip-syncing to famous songs, projecting herself into the umpire’s chair while scolding a rowdy crowd at a match, dressing in Wimbledon whites to hit in the backyard of her parents’ New Jersey home or lovingly inhaling the scent of a freshly opened can of tennis balls, Ahn has kept herself and her fans laughing.

“I always used to walk around with a camera on me, so I was always recording and putting together little videos. So there’s not that much footage of me growing up. It’s mostly of my friends, and I’ve got tons of blackmail on them,” she said jokingly during a recent phone conversation. “This is probably one of the first real times that I’ve put myself in front of the camera, and people are seeing that. I’m just really happy that people find it entertaining.”

Beyond providing a few minutes’ amusement, her videos have become a useful tool in getting people through these strange days.

Ahn has become concerned about the mental well-being of players who are experiencing anxiety or losing motivation since their normal life and livelihood were taken away from them, and she’s trying to help. Using her position on the Women’s Tennis Assn.'s Players’ Council, Ahn has been urging the WTA to remind players that the tour — which has suspended events through July 13 — offers mental health resources to guide them through this unprecedented time.

A laugh or attentive conversation can pierce their isolation and lift their spirits, Ahn believes, and she’s leading by example.

“I think everyone is trying to help each other as best they can in whatever capacity, whether that’s posting videos or reaching out to players individually,” she said. “I saw the morale at Indian Wells the day after the cancellation. There were still players going out and practicing. There were players doing fitness on the field but it was the weirdest atmosphere because everyone realized that Miami [the next tournament] was on hinges. We realized this could be the turning point, and all of a sudden the question is, ‘What am I doing this for? Why am I practicing? Why am I training?’ Now we’re in May and that question still applies.

“What’s so tough about the quarantine is not only the physical restrictions of staying inside or keeping your walks to a minimum, but also the mental toll that it takes because of the uncertainty. There’s no guarantee. We’re planning to come back in July. There’s no guarantee that’s going to happen. Originally we were supposed to come back in May. That got pushed to June, which is now July, and at some point I think the morale really takes a hit.

“It’s important to just try to take care of players at this time because we’ve just never been here before. Everyone’s got to band together and help everyone.”

Ahn rose to a career-best ranking of No. 87 last September, when she reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Open for the first time in her career, and she was 96th in the world when competition was put on hold. She was hoping 2020 would be a breakout year. Instead, like everyone else, she’s in limbo.

“It’s very frustrating for me because being top 100, you get that extra perk of getting into main draw Slams on your own. I got a wild card into Indian Wells main draw for the first time, which obviously is one of the best tournaments of the year from everyone’s perspective,” said Ahn, who will be 28 in June. “I played the $125,000 tournament the week before and I felt I had some momentum going into Indian Wells, so I was super-excited to play, then all of a sudden everyone is just on a full stop.

"I guess I’m fortunate — or unfortunate, however you want to look at it — to be very busy in these meetings with the WTA.”

Those meetings got a happy jolt recently when 20-time Grand Slam singles champion Roger Federer tweeted this would be a good time for the separate men’s and women’s tours to unite as one organization. The women have long advocated that but the ATP men’s tour has resisted.

“That pretty much struck the whole of tennis Twitter. We were very excited to see that because all of a sudden that puts some validation on it,” Ahn said. “It’s public. One of the top players, Roger Federer tweeted about it. That must mean something.

“It’s out there now. This is the time to do it. We have the time. We can use it to our advantage and the tours can hopefully go in the same direction and we can see a better product come out of it in the end.”

Playing a part in making that happen would enhance Ahn’s already impressive resume. She’s near the end of her tennis career, she said, though she’s not sure what’s next. The sport would be fortunate if she takes on an administrative role.

“I feel like, especially after the U.S. Open, I have really been able to accomplish some of my goals not just on court, but also bringing inspiration to Asian Americans in athletics,” she said. “After that, I have things I want to do.”

Her to-do list doesn't include making more videos. “It’s just a hobby for me,” she said. “During this time, I’m just happy to keep people happy.” A laugh, she knows, can go a long way.