DC’s Hailey Baptiste is happy to be at home at the Citi Open

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It’s been three years since Hailey Baptiste last played a tournament in DC, but as practice, she’s serving as a tattoo on the hard court surface at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center – this week’s venue City open — Baptiste feels at home.

For the DC native, Rock Creek Park has been the setting for some of her most defining experiences – like when Baptiste, then 4 years old, brought her father Quasim to the attention while handing over the business to him with an adult-sized racket. Or as family friends who worked at the event turned a blind eye as Baptiste snuck through the back entrance to catch some of the game’s best plays at the Citi Open.

Or most notably, when Baptiste apparently announced her presence in women’s tennis as a 17-year-old by overturning then no. 17 Madison keys in the first round of the 2019 Citi Open.

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“I don’t really believe in magic or anything like that, but it’s hard to put into words what these courts and this city have meant to me and my career,” Baptiste said. “With all the familiar faces in the crowd, it’s like you have home field advantage or something. It just seems to me that good things always happen here.”

With the women’s Citi Open returning after a two-year hiatus, Baptiste is hoping her home field advantage will lead to another defining experience on Monday when she takes on No.7 Jessica Pegula in the first round.

Baptiste, 20, is in a very different position from the last time she played in the nation’s capital. After beating Keys in 2019, she seemed poised for a foray into the upper echelons of the women’s ladder. But their growth hasn’t exactly been linear.

Since turning full-time professional in January 2020, Baptiste has struggled to play consistently as the coronavirus pandemic has upended schedules and nagging injuries have left her sidelined.

“It was a frustrating route for me, to say the least,” said Baptiste. “If you dream of becoming a professional tennis player when you are 9 years old, you never consider the difficult parts of that journey. You just assume it’s going to be the same for you as it was for Serena [Williams] or [Rafael] Nadal. But being a professional is really tough and there is a new challenge every day.”

Baptiste’s biggest challenge is making enough money to break even. Her #148 rank does not equate to a large salary after expenses.

Without sponsorship, Baptiste was forced to make some tough sacrifices, e.g. E.g. sharing hotel rooms with other players, flying to tournaments at odd times, skipping meals from time to time and not having a consistent coach.

Baptiste made $175,288 before taxes in 2022 but said she had to shell out more than $130,000 in expenses.

“Don’t get me wrong – I’m blessed to be a professional tennis player – but it’s impossible not to look at other sports and think about what life as a top 150 player would be like,” Baptiste said. “I chose this sport and I understand that to make money you have to win so don’t think I’m out here looking for sympathy or anything. [I’m] I’m just telling you the reality of the sport.”

Baptiste’s mother, Shari Dishman, has cashed in on thousands of dollars worth of inherited bonds and stocks and even dived into her retirement fund to keep her daughter’s dream alive. At the same time, Baptiste’s father serves as her day-to-day manager.

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“It’s a family affair for me,” Dishman said. “Before I had Hailey, I was planning to move to New York and work in the fashion industry. So I know what it’s like to give up your dreams and have these nagging thoughts of what could have been. I will do everything to ensure my only child never has to deal with this.”

Baptiste is not alone, said Martin Blackman, general manager of player development at the US Tennis Association. While the various tennis federations provide financial aid to some players, it is a real problem for any player who ranks outside the top 50 to make ends meet.

“It’s a tough road in the beginning because there’s a lot of costs … that tennis players have to consider when navigating the lower tiers of the pro circuit,” Blackman said. “Luckily for Hailey, she has all the talent and ability to compete regularly in the big tournaments, which will ease her financial burden over time. We believe that Hailey will become one of those top 50 players in the near future.”

If he’s healthy, Baptiste has already proven he can be a top 50 talent. In May, she won three straight qualifiers at the French Open to reach the main draw before retiring with injury in the first round.

“If I just get healthy and feel good, I know I have the potential to be one of the best in this sport,” Baptiste said. “I think being back in DC for the Citi Open and some home cooking is just what the doctor ordered.”

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