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Cerritos’ Chen closing in as one of Duke University’s all-time top women’s tennis players

Cerritos’ Kelly Chen takes on Virginia Commonwealth University players at the Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center in Durham. Reagan Lunn / Duke Athletics.

 

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter
March 3, 2021

 

The City of Cerritos is no stranger in producing top collegiate tennis players and one of its own will be concluding a successful career with one of the nation’s top women’s programs. But the path of Kelly Chen’s success isn’t your normal ‘was a star in high school’ story because she never attended a high school in the city, nor any other city for that matter.

While her oldest sister Tiffany, and middle sister Beverly, attended Cerritos High, the youngest sibling did all her high schooling at home in front of a computer through Laurel Springs Academy, an accredited online private school.

“My family put me into online schooling just because I was able to travel more that way,” Chen said. “I didn’t go to Cerritos High, but I did go to Tetzlaff Middle School for a bit. At the time, my goal was to play professional tennis.”

At first, Chen said it wasn’t a hard decision to choose Laurel Springs Academy but once she was done with high school, Chen admitted there was a little part of her that wished she had attended Cerritos High just to ‘have that experience’. The classes she took online were no different than the one she would have taken at Cerritos High.

“I feel like it’s a bit unfortunate for me that I didn’t get that high school experience that everybody talks about and stuff,” Chen said. “I think I was a bit bummed out, for sure, not to do all those activities that my sisters always talk about. But [in] the tennis aspect, I made a lot of great connections and friends. So, it kind of made up for it in the end.”

A normal high school day for Chen would have her play tennis for about three to four hours plus fitness before doing her schoolwork. After that, she would sometimes go to a tutor at several place. She added that she wouldn’t have time to have ‘fun’.

Chen began her athletic ambitions playing golf for five years before jumping to tennis and has been doing that for 11 years. She credits her oldest sibling as the one person who motivated her to play the sport. Both older siblings played golf at Cerritos High, but not tennis. Tiffany later decided to quit golf and play tennis outside of high school and that’s what motivated the current Duke star to play tennis.

Chen didn’t attend any of the high schools in Cerritos because she began playing in International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournaments and in local tournaments, which began around 2013 or 2014, according to the tennis star.

“I was really motivated by my sisters and the coaches I had when I was young,” Chen said. “My main goal was to play professional tennis. So, one of the ways to get up there was to play in those ITF tournaments and eventually those pro circuit tournaments.”

She said she had always idolized Belgian star Kim Clijsters, who was the first players she saw when she went to watch a professional match at La Costa or other Southern California venues. Years later, Chen would look up to several American players, especially Serena and Venus Williams.

Originally, Chen had looked at Duke, Stanford University, University of California, Berkley, UCLA and University of North Carolina. She was contacted by a coach at Duke during her junior year of high school. Despite numerous exchanges of messages, Chen did not commit to Duke until the beginning of her senior year, and she chose the Atlantic Coast Conference institution because, as she put it, ‘was far away from home’.

“But ultimately when I took a visit down here, I really liked how the team and everybody here at Duke…it just felt like a family,” Chen said. “And the environment, it felt like a very comfortable place for me to stay. I also knew some of the girls beforehand, as we played junior tennis together. So, I kind of grew up together with these people.”

Another reason why Chen chose Duke might have something to do with its head coach of 25 years, Jamie Ashworth. Prior to this season, Ashworth had gone 533-131 with the Blue Devils, including 204-40 in the ACC and though last Saturday, Duke was sporting a 7-1 record.

As successful as the Duke women’s tennis program has been during Ashworth’s tenure in Durham, N.C., Chen admitted she didn’t know as much about it. In fact, she recalls Ashworth had some of his players contact her occasionally prior to committing to Duke. The only thing she knew was that Duke was one of the nation’s top schools for tennis.

“Jamie has really created these top college players and…I wanted to be a part of that team; that legacy that Jamie has created here,” Chen said.

Chen, who is majoring in psychology, was an immediate force as a freshman, going 25-1 in dual singles action and racking up 40 wins as a singles player, which was tops on the team. She also won all 14 of her ACC matches, the only player to do that. Pairing up with Samantha Harris, Chen went 25-9 in doubles action, the second best record on the team and among her honors in her first year, she became the 12th Duke women’s tennis athlete to win the ACC Freshman of the Year award. Chen was also an Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) All-American selection, where she ended the season ranked 28th in singles play.

“I think as a freshman, there’s not much pressure coming in,” Chen said. “I think I was seen as an underdog in a way as to all the freshmen that come into college. I think I was just very relaxed. I had nothing to lose, but I think also, with the reassurance I get from the staff here, it has made it 100 times more better for me on the court, as well as off the court. Credit to them for my success.

“I think [in my] freshman year, I just wanted to have fun on court,” she later said. “I wasn’t really expecting much from myself. It’s a new environment for me. There’s definitely a lot of things I had to get used to as a freshman.”

The next year, Chen began the season ranked 12th by the ITA before going 35-9 overall as a singles player, again tops on the team, and teamed with Meible Chi in doubles to go 16-5 overall. The Blue Devils went 27-4 overall for the second straight season and advanced to the NCAA semifinals for the second straight season. Chen once again was an ITA All-American and was on the Second Team All-ACC.

In the COVID-19-shortened season, Chen was ranked fifth by the ITA before going 21-6 in singles play, and for the third straight season, received ITA All-America accolades. She posted a 6-1 mark as the No. 1 singles player and teamed with Chloe Beck to become Duke’s No. 1 doubles duo. There, Chen went 14-8 overall and 8-4 in dual matches. As a team, the Blue Devils went 11-2 with a Mar. 1 match against William and Mary being the last time Duke would play that season.

Chen began hitting a few months later and while she says having a few months off was nice, at the same time, it was tough not being active in tennis for a few months. Because the gyms were also shut down, Chen began to run around her neighborhood and set up a mini-home gym in North Carolina.

“I made the most out of it during the pandemic,” Chen said.

Chen was also active in the fall as she competed in the ITA Fall Nationals and the ITA Regional Championships on her way to becoming another ITA All-American. Chen has also qualified for the NCAA Singles Championships her first two seasons and is on her way to a third trip this season.

Among her records during her first three years at Duke, Chen is tied for first with Kaitlyn McCarthy (2017) in posting a 14-0 record in ACC action for a season, most wins in a season in ACC action and third in school history for wins as a freshman in singles play. Chen could also become the third player in Duke’s history to earn All-American honors in all four years. Amanda Johnson (2001-2004) and Vanessa Webb (1996-1999) are the only other four-year All-Americans.

“I’m honored to get those awards from the ACC and the NCAA organization,” Chen said. “But it just kind of shows the hard work that I’ve put in in my game as well as the Duke women’s staff that’s been helping me to achieve these awards.”

This season, Chen is currently 6-3 in singles play and 9-2 in doubles action with Georgia Drummy as her partner. Chen has also teamed with Beck once in a 3-2 loss to North Carolina State University on Jan. 16.

“There’s a lot of responsibility as a senior on the team just to keep everybody motivated and kind of in check,” Chen said. “So far, we’ve been doing pretty good [as a team] except that rare loss to Georgia Tech at the end of January. But other than that, our team has been looking good. Overall, we are capable of winning the ACC Tournament and the NCAA [Tournament].”

When Chen graduates from Duke, she says she would like to play a little bit in pro circuit and if it doesn’t work out, Chen’s next ambition would be to get into the sports business.

 

 

 

 

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