Pepperdine Waves women’s tennis player Ashley Lahey is aiming to end her college career in the spring of 2020 in a similar position she is winding down the current calendar year—sitting atop the world of college tennis.
Lahey, the top-ranked player in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s women’s singles poll, wants to close her college career with a NCAA national title with her Waves teammates.
“It’s my senior year and my last chance to do it,” she said. “It would be something incredible. These girls that I play with—every year has been amazing, but this year, I’m just so excited to be around them. I want to give us the best opportunity to take home a championship.”
Lahey is certainly on that track. The fourth-year Wave aced her way through the competition during Pepperdine’s fall 2019 season. She went 16-0 en route to winning three tournaments and garnered back-to-back ITA Player of the Month Awards. Now the No. 1-rated college tennis player from sea to shining sea, Lahey accomplished all that while grinding through a heavy school load due to majoring in sports medicine with a focus on pre-medicine.
It’s because of all of that that Lahey is The Malibu Times’ Athlete of the Year.
The South Bay native has put a ton of hard work into her tennis game but said numerous individuals in her orbit deserve credit for her becoming the first Pepperdine tennis player in decades to be ranked No. 1 in the nation.
“There is so much that goes on behind the scenes with every single day having to go out there and practice,” Lahey noted. “You need people to motivate you, and this semester my teammates have been incredible. They are so positive and just so much fun to be around. I look forward to practice just to be around them.”
The right hander has a special connection with Pepperdine’s coaches. She said the staff, which includes head coach Per Nilsson and assistants Pete Billingham and Jaan Kononov, help her through tough times and make the training sessions worthwhile on days she doesn’t want to practice.
Lahey called her professors inspiring and said they allow her to chase her dreams on the tennis court.
“You still have to commit to their classes, but they have let me travel to tournaments and made that part of my life easy by helping me catch up when I get back by being very available,” she said.
Nilsson said Lahey has the potential to be a professional player and that gets him excited as a coach. He wants to help her any way he can. He called Lahey a firecracker that goes 100 miles per hour in whatever she does.
“Academics are her hobby. She has a 3.9 GPA in pre-medicine,” he said. “She is as competitive on the court. No matter what she does, she takes pride in it and wants to be the best.”
Lahey isn’t the only Wave armed with a racquet that finished the squad’s fall season positioned in ITA rankings. Graduate student Jessica Faila is ranked No. 50, sophomore Anastasia Iamachkine is ranked 62nd, and Daria Kuczer, another sophomore, is at 90.
Sophomore Corrado Summaria is ranked 38th in the ITA men’s pole.
But Lahey led the charge for the Waves in 2019.
Last spring, her junior year, she was selected for the 2019 All-West Coast Conference singles first team and doubles second team as she was ranked as high as No. 4 in singles and top in doubles. Lahey had a 19-8 record in singles and advanced to the round of 32 in the 2019 NCAA National Singles Championships.
She entered the fall season ranked 14th and climbed the poles by forehanding and backhanding her way to win after win. She won titles in the Oracle/ITA Masters, Women’s Collegiate Invitational and ITA All-Americans. Twelve of the opponents she downed were ranked.
Lahey, who spent some time ranked near the top of United States Tennis Association and Tennis Rec Network national rankings before enrolling at Pepperdine, always aspired to be the nation’s top player, but didn’t have expectations to grab the No. 1 spot in 2019. She believes that enhanced her play.
“All I wanted to do was try to play and get better,” Lahey said. “I left all the hoping for rankings and those other thoughts at the door and just played my best. I didn’t think much about being successful. I tried to focus on the process of playing and getting better.”
The first-ranked player is trying to battle back musings centered on being ranked atop all other college players.
“That is a little frustrating because I just want to play for the love of playing and train the way I was training,” Lahey said. “I’m trying to deal with that now, where I feel like there is a bit more pressure on me for the next season and expectations I am trying to live up to. I don’t want to think about them. I want to get back to just enjoying tennis.”
The Pepperdine athlete said thoughts focused on living up to the expectations of being highly-graded can have a negative impact and make tennis unenjoyable.
“Say my forehand is off and I am not feeling it,” Lahey explained. “I start to get aggravated and that frustration builds and that makes it worse. And when it gets worse, I get more frustrated and then that starts to affect the backhand and I get more frustrated. Every mistake gets me upset and the whole practice just falls apart.”
She said not pursuing perfect tennis makes the sport more enjoyable.
“If I have no expectations and I am there just to enjoy the day, it doesn’t matter if I hit a every ball perfectly,” Lahey said. “If I make a mistake, I think about what I did wrong and I try to fix it for the next shot and slowly build toward playing better to the end of the practice.”
Her coach said one of Lahey’s biggest struggles in previous years was managing her workload in the offseason.
“In the summers when she would go off on her own, she didn’t know how to put the brakes on, so she would overtrain or overplay,” Nilsson said. “She would come back to school burnt out, injured. This summer she did a good job of saying, ‘Hey I can’t do this every single day, it’s going to mess up my body, mess up my mind.’ She had an easy summer and did some other things.”
One of those other things was a trip she took to Kenya with a Pepperdine group to help educate underprivileged youth. Lahey said working with and enjoying her time with the African youth revealed that her life should encompass more than tennis.
“I hope I can be in a position one day to try and provide a few more opportunities for kids there and go back and see some of them again and experience life there a little longer,” revealed Lahey, who did teach some of the kids tennis.
Lahey has been a standout tennis player throughout her years in Malibu. She was the WCC’s Freshman of the Year in 2017, has been named to the conference’s all singles and doubles team multiple times and been named an ITA All-American twice. In 2018, she was the NCAAA Singles Championship runner-up. Off the court, she has made the dean’s list and garnered several academic honors from the WCC.
Lahey’s favorite on-the-court moment this year was snagging her highest career win by defeating Serbian player Olga Danilovic at a pro tournament in Malibu. A lot of her friends and family members attended the three-set match.
“I played some of the best tennis I have played in my life, and I finished the match strong,” Lahey recalled. “I looked over at my coaches and all the people that put so much time and energy into me. Sharing that moment with them was special.”
She is embracing life outside of tennis now. She enjoys dinners and beach trips with her teammates. Since the Waves’ fall season ended, Lahey has focused on school, went skiing with friends and plans to visit her boyfriend in Texas. The tennis stud will start practicing again shortly after the new year.
Nilsson said Lahey taking a break from the court before the Waves’ first 2020 event, the Jan. 17 UNLV Invitational in Las Vegas, is pivotal to success in what he calls the real tennis season.
“Obviously, she is a senior, so she wants a chance to win it all for the team and an individual,” he added.
Lahey’s goals for 2020 are to graduate from Pepperdine and to play the best tennis she can.
“Lots of people that have always underestimated me,” she said. “I want to try and go out there and do some damage.”