In the summer of 2012 in Boca Raton, Fla., 14-year-old Alexa Graham ran into one of the other seven girls she was with in her dorm at a USTA camp.
The girl’s outfit seemed a bit strange to Graham, and she wasn’t shy about expressing this. Little did Graham know, this interaction with the girl — Jessie Aney — would have a lasting impact on her life, on and off the tennis court.
“The first time we met, she saw me and I was just a scrub,” Aney said. “I was wearing these super long socks — knee-high, bright blue with like these wings — with crocs. Blue socks and yellow crocs. And she was just like, ‘What the hell are you wearing?’”
The two also bonded during a dinner at Maggiano’s that week in Boca Raton. Graham was not fond of mozzarella, so when a plate came to the table as an appetizer, she was cautious.
Graham wanted Aney to taste test what she thought could be either cheese sticks or chicken cutlets.
“So I cut a little piece,” Aney said. “And I like try it and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Chicken. Here you go. Here’s your piece.’ I cut her a piece and it’s just full of cheese. Cheese is just stringing across the table. It’s pretty much that our relationship was built on the foundation of us both just making fools of ourselves.”
Graham, now a sophomore on the North Carolina tennis team, is on the No. 3 Division I doubles duo in the nation. Her partner? The bright blue long sock-wearing “scrub” that she met that summer — Aney, who is now a junior.
The pair has a 16-3 record on the season — all at the No. 1 spot for UNC — and was the top-ranked duo in the country until it lost to Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Graham and Aney became instant friends after that first meeting and their relationship over the last six years has been filled with inside jokes, random adventures and visits to one another’s homes. Although Graham lived in Garden City, N.Y., and Aney in Rochester, Minn., frequent run-ins at top-tier tennis tournaments throughout their childhood helped keep their friendship alive.
“She’s just a goof ball, so it was easy to hang out with her,” Aney said. “I always looked forward to seeing what kind of stunts she was going to pull at tournaments. And I think she would say the same thing about me.”
Their bond eventually aided Aney in convincing Graham to continue her tennis career at North Carolina, instead of turn professional out of high school. However, to fully understand Graham’s journey, one must start from the beginning.
When Alexa was two years old, her mother, Debbie, joined a country club in the family’s hometown of Garden City as a way to play sports and spend time with her girlfriends. One of the sports they played was tennis, a sport she had never tried before.
Debbie was immediately hooked.
“I would say me playing was definitely a factor (in Alexa starting to play) because I did fall in love with tennis immediately,” Debbie said. “Our whole family loved the sport and she fell right into it.”
By the time Alexa was six years old, she had a tennis racket in her hand too. Debbie signed Alexa up for weekly group lessons and tennis became a constant in the younger Graham’s life.
But tennis was just one of many sports that Alexa participated in growing up. She played basketball, soccer, lacrosse, golf and she swam. However, as Alexa got older, she started improving in tennis and her mother began registering her for even more classes.
Soon enough, the other sports started to fade away, and Alexa began devoting all of her time to the activity.
At the age of 10, Alexa was selected by the USTA to be a part of a program at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., designed for kids to be groomed to play professional tennis.
“That’s when I gave up all other sports,” Alexa said. “I was getting better at tennis. I started working harder at tennis, prioritizing tennis. And that’s when I just gave everything else up and focused on tennis.”
When she was 14 years old, she won the Bronze Ball in the 2013 ASICS Easter Bowl in Rancho Mirage, Calif. It was her first time finishing in the top-three in a super national tournament — tournaments which feature the most talented players in the nation.
“I think the draws were like 128 and then it ends up coming down to the final four and you’re in there and you come in third,” Debbie said. “If I have to look back now, after that, she went on to win so many more bigger things.”
The stage got bigger for Alexa, and with it, so did the time commitment. As a first-year at Garden City High School, she often had to leave school early for practice. Some weeks, she just wouldn’t go to school due to travel for national tournaments.
“Over time, I was missing so much school that they were like, ‘Listen, you got to do something here,’” Graham said.
One of the many things Alexa had to sacrifice was the traditional high school experience. She ended up completing her remaining three years of high school online in a program through the University of Nebraska, while she quickly made a name for herself on the pro circuit. In 2015, as a senior in high school, she was ranked No. 474 in the world in singles. In the same year, she won her first professional tournament.
But Alexa wasn’t the only one who had to make sacrifices. Whether it was traveling across the country to tournaments, taking her to practices or helping find the right coaches, her mother was by her side, every step of the way.
Debbie was a teacher, so having the summers off allowed her to travel with Alexa. The mother and daughter traveled almost weekly to competitions all over the U.S., and even in Canada and Mexico.
“It really was a large endeavor,” Debbie said. “I never envisioned it to be that much when we started doing it. But you know, it grows and grows. It was a big commitment, but when I saw that she was so successful, I was so happy for her.”
It was at a tournament in San Diego, Calif., when Alexa caught the attention of UNC head coach Brian Kalbas.
“I just remember wanting to recruit Alexa because of her game, her personality and her upside,” Kalbas said. “I was just like, ‘This is somebody that I think could really be an incredible college player.’”
Kalbas began recruiting Alexa heavily and soon after the tournament, she and her father, Bill, went on a visit to Chapel Hill. Kalbas offered her a scholarship that same day.
Her best friend, Aney, was already a first-year on the UNC tennis team. But Alexa was considering continuing to play professional tennis and skipping college.
“For the longest time, she was like, ‘Eh, college? That’s a backup plan,’” Aney said.
But Aney being on the team was enough for Alexa to at least consider North Carolina — and collegiate tennis, in general — as an option.
“I knew Jessie really well growing up ...” Alexa said. “So I already had some interest in the school because I knew it was a great program, especially if she was going here.”
Aney saw a window of opportunity and began her own recruiting pitch to Alexa.
“I was just trying to get her to come for a semester,” Aney said. “I was like, ‘Please, just try it out. If you come, you’ll have it in your back pocket. You’ll have the potential for your education,’ lowkey knowing she’d like it and she’d stay.”
Alexa was finally convinced. She committed to North Carolina in February 2016, but said she would enroll in January 2017 to allow her to have one more fall to play professionally.
“I just thought she was so special that I was willing to take her whenever,” Kalbas said. “Whenever she was ready.”
So Kalbas waited patiently and held a spot for Alexa on the roster. But later that year, Alexa changed her mind.
“Two weeks before school started in August, her mom calls me and says, ‘Alexa has changed her mind. She’d like to come in the fall,’” Kalbas said. “She goes, ‘Is there a way you can make it happen?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely.’”
She arrived at UNC in that fall and had success in singles right away, going 28-3 in her first season of collegiate tennis. However, she experienced some turbulence in doubles play. Kalbas tried pairing Alexa and Aney together last season — the duo lost their only dual match.
“Last year, there wasn’t a leader on the court,” Kalbas said. “Alexa was a freshman. She wasn’t a comfortable doubles player. She wasn’t a leader. Jessie was looking for someone to lead her.”
Now, in her second year at UNC, Alexa is once again dominating in singles play with a 24-1 record. She was undefeated for most of the year, until a loss at Duke last Friday.
And the pair of Alexa and Aney that struggled last season is now one of the best in the nation, evidenced by their lengthy stay near the top of the rankings. Kalbas contributes Alexa’s success this season to a change in approach and maturation.
“This year, more than last year, she has a better identity of what her game needs to look like,” Kalbas said. “And she’s willing to work on those things in practice to perfect it.”
Alexa and Aney’s off-the-court bond finally began translating to on-court success.
“I don’t think there is anybody in the nation with better energy and chemistry on the court than us,” Aney said. “I think that scares teams when they get out there.”
Friday, the No. 2 nationally ranked Tar Heels will play their first match in the ACC Women’s Tennis Championship after a double-bye. The No. 3 seed for the ACC Championship will play No. 11 Wake Forest. Alexa hopes to help the Tar Heels bring a third consecutive ACC Championship title back to Chapel Hill.
From the moment her mother picked up tennis as a hobby, Alexa was destined to be a tennis star. And when she ran into Aney at that tennis camp, that star was destined to be a Tar Heel.
“I guess things just happen, and they happen for a reason,” Debbie said. “And this kind of fell into our lap.”
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