It was a simple task, really. Kids much younger than her could have done it without any hesitation, but the longer Jessie Aney searched along the sides of the sleek black box, the more she felt lost. Oh my gosh. This was foreign to her. She paused in front of the television. Where is the power button? At 12 years old, she didn’t know how to turn it on.
“She was sort of a different breed,” her older sister Katie said.
Any day of the week, Jessie preferred being outside to watching TV. But the Australian Open Finals were on, and the family had just gotten back to their suburban Rochester, Minn., home from a trip. Jessie wanted to catch as many of the matches as she could, but now, after five minutes, she was beginning to feel irritated.
Her family came in behind her, unpacked their bags and then slouched down on the couches behind her. She still struggled. Her chances of watching Roger Federer outmatch Andy Murray for his 16th Grand Slam were dissipating. And my God, the way he played tennis was beautiful. He was one of her favorites and she didn’t want to miss it — but a piece of equipment in every American household was getting the best of her.
Aha! she found the secret, a large and clearly marked circular power button in the middle of the device. How was she supposed to know that’s where it was? She shrugged it off. All was well again and so was Federer’s serve in that light blue Nike tennis shirt.
Let’s get something straight right away: Jessie was never the typical kid. But pay attention. This is what will make her great.
Stop — don’t try to understand it, just let it sink in. She’ll even admit it. It’s an elusive undertaking to pinpoint what makes her the way she is.
She thinks Minnesota is the happiest state. Those who know her best say she is the nicest person they’ve ever met. She works hard for the UNC women’s tennis team and smiles a lot, but even then she can’t say exactly why.
You’ll see. Just step back for a moment and enjoy the game, like Jessie does. A serve is coming soon and she’s all business — crouched over, reddish brown hair up in a visor, brow furrowed, elbows to her knees and fingertips twirling her racket in her palm. Hold on, she won’t be this serious for long.
The court is nestled in between gothic architecture. The Duke University Chapel is on one side, Cameron Indoor Stadium on the other. Her mother, Karen, is fidgeting in her seat. Someone has to be nervous, because Jessie isn’t.
Jessie is an in-the-moment person. Since she came to UNC, her parents text her and might not hear back for days on end. She invests wherever she is and wherever she is dialed in to.
Jessie and her partner Alexa Graham, the then-No. 1 doubles team in the country, are down 4-1 in a crucial tiebreaker set to the No. 6 Duke duo of Samantha Harris and Kelly Chen. Yet Jessie has a big smile across her face. Is she confused? No, she’s just loving it.
Whoever wins this match will hold an early advantage to closing out the ACC regular season crown. They’re just three more mistakes from their second conference loss of the season — and that’s when the smiles return at their fullest. She is carefree.
“I’m competitive and I want to win, right?” she says. “Does your opponent want to see you chucking your racket into the back fence, or does your opponent want to see you looking like you’re in a good mood, looking like you’re loving life?”
Her coach, Brian Kalbas, says that optimism is her greatest weapon and her greatest weakness. She never gets rattled, but she also has a bad habit of calling balls that are out in, like against Louisville earlier in the year when she gave her opponent the benefit of the doubt and lost.
She and Graham are too busy having fun to notice they’re coming back. In between points, they make fun of the Duke crowd, make fun of their opponents, make fun of themselves. The game of tennis is meant to be fun.
“We’re always laughing, having a good time,” Graham said. “So it’s less work and more, we’re just going to have fun.”
It’s 6-6 now and Jessie is serving. They’ve won five of the last seven points and she’s still keeping it loose. She swings hard and powers the ball down the line, out of the reach of her opponents. She couldn’t have had a bigger smile on her face. North Carolina wins the first point.
"All her drive and insanity,” Katie said, “has paid off in her successes."
It was becoming harder and harder for Jessie to say ‘no’ to her brother Nick.
“Jessie, I know you don’t want to play,” she recalled him saying, “but what if I get every single person on the team to be like, ‘Yes, we want her to play’?”
“I guess if everyone wanted me to play, that would be chill,” she said.
She had no idea what she was about to get herself into. The Century High School boy’s tennis team was already months into the season and she thought the team wouldn’t be in favor of adding a senior girl, but she was wrong.
After their conversation, Nick texted every single one of his teammates. They all said yes, who wouldn’t want a highly touted tennis player? Even though she hadn't played high school tennis since her first year of high school, when she still played against the girls, she was now on the team.
Jessie stepped in as the No. 1 singles player on the team and made an immediate impact. She didn't lose a match until the state tournament in June. She challenged her opponents on the court, including about their ideas of gender and athletics, and learned a lot about herself along the way. She was the first female to make the boy’s tennis state tournament. Some of her opponents had never lost to a girl before.
"I don't think she learned as much as a lot of boys learned to respect her," Tom, her father, said. "I thought it was a real learning experience for the boys and I thought they handled it really well."
Her parents always taught her there was nothing that separated her from anyone. Hard work could get her anywhere she wanted. Her opponents were gracious enough at the end, a surprise to her. The testosterone hadn’t yet made them too prideful to realize women could do anything they could.
And when she did eventually lose in the quarterfinals of the state tournament, she led the team to a third place finish in the state. It wasn’t a bad way to finish up her last few months before moving to North Carolina.
That story can’t be told yet, though.
Hey, kid, what the hell are you doing? It’s barely 6 a.m.!
Jessie was sweating in the subzero dawn, the dim light and foggy sky barely lighting her path. Growing up in Minnesota, she was used to the cold winter temperatures. She thinks it really toughened her up.
When she was 2, her mother tried to get her to become a figure skater. I am not figure skating. There’s no way I’m figure skating. Like, buy me some hockey sticks.
No, this wasn’t twisting and turning and twirling. She laced up the skates and glided across the family’s backyard rink, the one her dad built for his three children in the mid-2000s with cinder blocks, wooden boards and a plastic sheet. The 6-year-old started her morning routine of smacking the pucks against the backboard. This time, it was loud enough to wake up her neighbor.
He cracked open the window and yelled at her. This was much too early to be working that hard, that loud, at that age and that intensity. He worked night shifts and usually fell asleep just before Aney started sharpening her skills with what little light reflected off the snow and ice. Her father would get an earful when he’d knock on the door later to complain some more.
“Hey, you've got to tell your kid don't shoot against the boards,” the neighbor would say.
It happened a lot. And every time, it just pushed Jessie to get better at her craft, to miss the goal less and silently skid the puck into the back of the goal more. She wouldn’t stop for anything except when her hands started bleeding. Then, she’d bandage them up inside and start shooting again.
“I spent a lot of time out there,” she said. “I loved feeling like I was getting better at stuff, you know, feel like I was mastering stuff even if it was really small.”
No one understood why she worked so hard. Her parents didn’t. This wasn’t a part of a master plan to send her pro or land her a spot in the Olympics. Tom and Karen don't even try to take credit for her competitiveness today. They just stressed one thing to all three of their kids, each now accomplished athletes of their own. Each one of them should chase after what got them up in the morning, and for Jessie, this was it.
"It's something a little different what makes this kid tick,” Tom said. “I had never seen it before and I certainly can't take any credit. It was just part of her personality.”
Jessie Aney picked up a racket and suddenly she wasn’t in Rochester anymore. She was a little older by then. 50, 100, 200, 300. In her head, she’d penciled herself into the tournament draw, gearing up to play in the Grand Slam.
When she pictures herself happy, this is where it is, with a tennis racket in her hand. She was breathing heavy, covered in sweat. The hard work would pay off.
If she wanted to get good enough to beat the world’s best players, she needed to start acting like it. Standing in the driveway, she battled often against Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin, the Williams sisters or Kim Clijsters. To beat each player and rise in the rankings, she hit thousands of balls into the 12-by-8-foot netting her father built for the driveway. Each new opponent demanded more consecutive volleys rebounding off the bungee cords. 400, 500, 600, 700.
“I thought she was crazy,” Katie said. “She’s always been insane.”
Jessie counted out loud, raising the intensity with her quota and sometimes drawing a crowd of neighbors to watch. 800, 900, 1000, 1100.
When Jessie realized how many hours she lost at night, she asked her dad to go buy a flood light at Home Depot. From then on, that opened up more hours to grind, sometimes working until nearly midnight to hit thousands of balls in the driveway. She wasn’t even in middle school. 1200, 1201, 1202, 1203. It certainly made for good conversation at her neighbor’s dinner parties. What the hell is she doing? Why is she hitting 1,200 balls and counting each one?
“Her strength was that she worked at it hard,” Karen said. “She was persistent, so probably not any more athletic than my other two kids, but she just had that persistence that you can't teach.”
Soon enough, people would stop asking questions. They’d understand how good a player she was. Her hard work wouldn’t be in vain.
“This kid is going somewhere in hockey, tennis or being a doctor,” Tom said. “She’s got drive, she’s got commitment and she's got focus. It's pretty special.”
Jessie was determined that this would finally be the year.
She was smiling. The picture of who she is is clearing up.
As she planned out her senior hockey season, she didn’t set personal goals. She only wanted her teammate, who’d never scored a goal in four or five years on the team, to have that feeling before her career was over.
Jessie is a competitor, but she is kind, too. All season long, she dished her teammate the puck, but coming into the final game of the season, it had been to no avail. In the final game she passed her the puck more than a dozen times, making sure she’d had plenty of opportunities. Finally, she took a sigh of relief. Goooooaaaaaallll!
“You'd have thought the team won the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Tom said. “She was probably more happy to see this girl get her one goal than she was at any goal she'd ever scored.”
This is as much a part of who Jessie is as anything else, her competitive nature included.
“There are certain people that are just so nice and so friendly they just get along with everybody. She’s that one,” Kalbas said. “There’s not one person who has ever said a negative thing about her.”
She’ll do whatever it takes, even give up her own personal glory and fame, to help the team. As bad as she wants to win, she wants others to have that feeling, too.
When Jessie was 11 years old, representatives from the United States Tennis Association Northern noticed her. They wanted to nominate her for the 2010 Sports Illustrated Sports Kid of the Year. Recognition of all her hard work was on the way.
The Aneys tried to ignore it at first, but USTAN just kept calling. Tom asked his daughter how she felt about entering the contest. She wasn’t opposed to the idea. Why the heck not?It couldn’t hurt.
They thought that would be the end of it, but the phone calls kept coming. Jessie advanced into the final 10 candidates for the national award, then the final five.
Tom and Karen were ecstatic, but they started worrying. They were wary of pushing their daughter too hard or raising the expectations too high. They didn’t want her to lose her passion for the game. When she won, she became the first female winner. She was the magazine’s cover girl, meeting legendary tennis player Billie Jean King and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in New York City.
But afterward, all those memories were boxed up and filed away in the family garage. It has collected a layer of dust by now, but Jessie hasn't. She continued to move forward.
By the time she reached eighth grade, she was winning championships. In seventh grade, she started playing high school girl’s tennis at Century High School and lost just one match all season against players who’d soon be headed off to college — the 2010 Class 2A state singles final.
The following season, she won it all, becoming the youngest player in Minnesota history to win a singles state title. The next year she teamed up with her sister for another state championship in doubles.
By then the No. 5 recruit in her class, colleges were attracted to her, among them the North Carolina tennis program.
Jessie wasn’t there yet, but Chapel Hill was on the horizon.
The fall of her junior year of high school, she came to visit the campus on her official visit. Three schools, UNC, Georgia and Minnesota were in the mix. UNC had only one scholarship for the Class of 2019, and Kalbas wanted Aney bad.
Aney liked what she saw of the program and just had one question to gauge what kind of coach she was talking to.
“If I came to Carolina, if I wanted to, would you be willing and let me play club men’s ice hockey?” she asked. Kalbas had never heard a question like that. Sure she could, as long as she was also committed to a career in tennis. No other coach she’d talked to wanted to give her that kind of room to have other interests.
“The fact that he was gung-ho about me playing men's club hockey kind of showed that he cared about me,” she said. “He cared about my passions and not just my performance on the court."
She isn’t just a tennis player and didn’t want to be treated as such.
Shortly after the experience, she committed to become a Tar Heel. She was sold. After winter break of her sophomore year in college, she joined the club hockey team and she’s been on both teams ever since.
For Jessie, the past has never dictated her future. It doesn’t weigh on her. It has only become a part of who she is.
Today, she doesn’t get to train as much on her own as she once did, but she has also reached some of the places she has always wanted to during her three years in Chapel Hill.
Her first two seasons for North Carolina, she had a perfect ACC regular season singles duals match record of 26-0. Over the course of her college career, she has played for two No. 1 doubles teams and can be counted on when the team needs her most.
She has been an ITA All-American in doubles, has been named First Team All-ACC and has been on the All-ACC Academic Team twice.
This season, Aney has taken an even bigger step. She and Graham have held one of the top three spots in the doubles rankings most of the season and enter postseason play at No. 2.
When the program won its third ITA National Team Indoor Championship, it was Aney who outlasted her Pepperdine opponent to clinch the win.
Before the tournament, she'd been nursing an injury sustained while playing hockey. She was checked against the boards and barely found a way onto the court. When she did, she came through when her team needed her the most.
She doesn’t care if she stands out for playing ice hockey and tennis. She just does what she does.
A business major, she doesn’t know what she’ll do after next season. Maybe she’ll chase after one of her many passions with her degree, or she’ll go to law school. Maybe she’ll transition into a full-time pro career and move to Europe. She can see herself in many places in five years.
For now, though, she’ll just focus on helping her team win an NCAA national championship, starting this weekend against Morgan State at 1 p.m. on Friday If the team makes a deep run, she will no doubt be a big part of its success.
But she doesn't need to be told that. She doesn't even need you to understand her, or know why she does what she does.
She'll just get back out on the court with a smile on her face and work hard like she always has. The rest will take care of itself.