NEW YORK, USA - There was a time that Kristie Ahn thought playing the main draw at the US Open, her hometown Slam, would be a regular occurrence. Then there came a time when she never thought it would happen again.
When she was 17-years-old, Ahn was convinced she'd rather sling soups and sandwiches at Panera than swing a tennis racquet. Now 27, she's doing everything she can to dodge the working world and stay in the sport she loves.
On Tuesday night out on Court 5, Ahn won her first main draw match at the US Open, pulling off a big upset of 2004 champion and recent Cincinnati finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-5, 6-2 in the first round. The match was Ahn's first main draw match at the US Open in 11 years, having played her only other match in 2008 after qualifying and losing to Dinara Safina.
"My life has come full circle. I feel like I can finally put 2008 U.S. Open to rest. May it rest in peace."@kristieahn on earning her first main draw win @usopen, 11 years after playing her first main draw match here in 2008.#USOpen pic.twitter.com/K7mI29SPkW
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) August 28, 2019
Recalling her one US Open main draw match from 11 years ago, Ahn remembers returning to her high school the next day surrounded by classmates who had no idea of what she had just done.
"One kid high-fived me under the desk was [and whispered] 'good job," Ahn told reporters. "No one knew. No one in my class knew."
"It's funny because when I was 16, I was like 'Oh yeah I'll be here next year again.'
"When I was 17 I was so burnt out. I got a wildcard into qualies and I didn't even want to play."
Since making her US Open main draw debut at 16-years-old, Ahn fell at the qualifying hurdle four times, while slotting in four years at Stanford and graduating with a degree in Science, Technology and Society in 2014.
"At some point you're like, I don't think it's gonna happen again," Ahn said. "When you're a teenager you think it's going to happen again, it's going happen. And then when you reach 20, you're like, I don't think it's gonna happen, 21, oh it's not happening, 22, oh wow it's really not happening.
"And then going through qualifying is grueling. I lost to Elise Mertens in the last round of qualies in 2016 and then she went Top 20 in the world. You're like, wow, is that really bad luck or did I just not take the chance of opportunities? All these questions start looming above your head. Now it's all tucked away and good riddance."
"My life has come full circle. I feel like I can finally put 2008 U.S. Open to rest. May it rest in peace.
"Because I feel like since then I've been comparing myself to when I was 16 and I qualified. That's why qualifying for Wimbledon [this year], for me, was absolutely massive because I finally qualified again and I no longer have to compare. It's not that looming skeleton in my closet anymore.
"It's like I can play free, and I feel like I have."
Graduating in 2014 created a dilemma for Ahn and her parents. On one hand, there was Corporate America, where the Stanford graduate would be in a position to make good money in a stable high-level job right off the bat. On the other was the tough pathway towards the Top 100, where Ahn would be forced to invest in herself financially in hopes of breaking through. Ahn's parents sided with the former. Ahn pushed for the latter.
"When I graduated I told my parents that I wanted to turn pro and they weren't too elated with that," Ahn told reporters in Charleston in 2018. "For the first couple of years I didn't gain much traction. It's tough to go from a support system, having coaches, having fitness trainers, having the physical trainers [in college] and then going to by yourself. I moved to Florida for whatever reason and had no real coach or any sort of structure.
"[My degree is] a pretty double-edged sword because yes, you have the confidence that you can fall back on something, but at the same time, when things aren't going well, you're like, why am I doing this? I can fall back on something. I could be doing something else right now."
"And my parents constantly were asking me, when are you done, are you done, is this your last one, is this your last year. And it just kept going and going, and I think it wasn't until the end of 2016 that my dad was finally like, all right, I trust you, I know you're going to know when you're done. And I trust that you will make that decision smartly, and I was like, I appreciate that.
"When you're ranked 900, it's not their pride of like, yes, my daughter is playing professional tennis, but she's ranked 900. You have a degree, it's going to waste."
"I made a deal with my parents that they would kind of help me from 2014 to 2017, for three years, help me financially," Ahn said in this week in New York. "My dad literally had a calendar countdown. He's like, We're almost there! End of 2017, get ready to look for jobs! Do you have a resumé ready?
"I'm like, this man needs to stop," Ahn said, laughing.
Ahn toiled away on the ITF Circuit, but by the start of 2017 she had spent much of her career ranked well outside the Top 200. With the clock running on her deal with her parents, Ahn says she came very close to accepting her days on the tennis court would soon be over.
"In 2017 I was ranked like 230-ish and I was playing 25Ks in Australia," Ahn said. "I lost to Marketa Vondrousova two weeks in a row and I was like, I can't do this anymore. This is just not OK.
"I was like, Okay that's it. This is going to be my vacation, I'm gonna enjoy this, and then play, and I'm going to ride out the year and 2017 is my end.
"I don't know if it was because of that, but a lot of things happened. I started working with Shenay Perry, a lot of things started happening in my life. And then I did well in Monterrey and then it just took off."
One month after her Australia trip, Ahn posted her first big tour result, advancing to the Round of 16 as a qualifier at the International event in Monterrey, where she lost to eventual champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Then came a 9-match ITF winning streak on clay, where she defeated future stars Amanda Anisimova and Aryna Sabalenka.
Ahn's momentum continued into the grass season that year, where she posted another top result in Nottingham. Making the quarterfinals as a qualifier, Ahn defeated Naomi Osaka and Magda Linette en route. She would top off her season with her biggest title, an ITF 80K in Tyler Texas, where she defeated Danielle Collins in the final.
Ahn went from being on the brink of retirement and ranked outside the Top 200, to a career-high ranking of No.105 within 12 months. It was a lot for the then 25-year-old to get her head around.
"I think that's also why I wasn't ready for it," Ahn said. "It just happened so fast and I was like, wait, I don't really belong here. All of a sudden it's, like, you could make main draw of the US Open.
"I don't know what's happening! I wasn't even going to play tennis!"
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) April 3, 2018
Instead of hanging her racquets at the end of 2017, Ahn played on. While she posted notable results last year, including a win over Sam Stosur and nearly edging Julia Goerges in Charleston, Ahn's ranking slipped back to No.200 by the end of the year.
"The beginning of this year my parents were like OK, you're going to be done by the end of the year," Ahn said. "And I was like, Oh no, I'm going to finish out two years because of my WTA term on the Players Council.
"I want that two-year on my resume! I don't want to cut it short."
This season, Ahn scored her second and now third wins over a major champion, having beaten Jelena Ostapenko in Bogota and now Kuznetsova. She also posted her career-best WTA result, making the quarterfinals of the Premier event in San Jose over the summer, which would ultimately boost her to win the USTA Wildcard Challenge and earn her wildcard into the main draw of the US Open.
"I think in the past couple of years I've kind of struggled with the feeling of belonging, even though I went 7-6 with Goerges, I beat Sam, but I felt something was lacking," Ahn said. "I felt like I was fortunate to be there and a this won't last type of thing.
"This year I feel like I'm like stacking my little wins, even though I lose matches. So now when I go out there I didn't feel nervous. I just was like just go out there and enjoy it."
"[Kuznetsova] whooped me pretty bad last year, so I was looking to redeem myself. I knew I wasn't the same player that I was back then and obviously neither is she. But I felt really confident in my game and I just really wanted to go out there and leave everything I had.
"I saw bits and pieces of her playing and she's incredible, how well she competes and what an awesome champion she is. I feel like this year I've really gotten to appreciate everyone's games, their game styles and how hard they compete.
"How awesome is our tour? There's so many different game styles but everyone fight so hard. Part of me just really appreciates being able to be on this stage."
After defeating Kuznetsova, Ahn celebrated with fans, friends, and family courtside. She hugged her Stanford teammates, who had come out to support her and high-fived her childhood friends, who had snuck out of work early to get a front-row seat for her match. Ahn found her mother and gave her a hug, but it wouldn't be until well after the match that she was able to track down her father.
"I gave them my laundry because they live here," Ahn said, laughing.
"My dad was like, So this is a bit of a problem. How are you going to get to Corporate America if you keep winning? He's very keen on me hanging up the rackets, getting the 9 to 5 job.
"But I'm going to try and milk this as long as I can."