Senior Alafia Ayeni has always been an excellent tennis player. Recruited for development by the United States Tennis Association as a teenager, Ayeni is a top upperclassman on Cornell men’s tennis and also an international competitor.
While nothing has stopped him from competing at the highest level, Ayeni said he didn’t always feel prepared for the challenges that lay ahead of him. Though he performed exceptionally well before, Ayeni said it wasn’t until he came to Cornell that he gained the maturity of a professional.
Working closely with Cornell coaches, including Assistant Coach Alex Funkhouser, has changed Ayeni from an unrefined prospect whose play was dictated by circumstance to a level-headed master who can excel in any match at his level.
He proved as much in his most recent tournament in mid-October, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Northeastern Regionals, where the senior won the men’s single’s bracket, in addition to finaling in the doubles bracket with partner Vladislav Melnic.
For most players, entering a big tournament as the No. 1 seed would feel exhilarating. But Ayeni saw things differently.
“There’s a lot of pressure being the one seed, which really stressed me out,” he said. “It wasn’t the most fun tournament.”
Ayeni’s goal from the outset was to become an All-American, but to do so he needed to at least make the finals. That was the bar to qualify for nationals, so all of the players had extra determination to advance.
Expectations weren’t Ayeni’s only concern. Because he was playing concurrently in the doubles bracket, he was on the court twice as often.
“The first night I think I only got three to four hours of sleep because of nerves … and by the end of the tournament I was super tired,” Ayeni said.
Ayeni said that, in general, managing expectations is one of his biggest challenges. Having begun his college career with a phenomenal season (winning Ivy League Rookie of the Year), the bar was immediately set high.
“I came in with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I thought college tennis would be easy…. I had hit with top professionals so I assumed I’d be [on top]. I was very wrong.”
At first, Ayeni said he didn’t manage the expectations well.
“I knew how high expectations were and I didn’t feel like I was living up to them,” Ayeni said.
After losing his first set of matches, he explained, “my opponents would expect me to fade, to just kind of go away, and before I bought into that. It took me a while to readjust my mindset … and just focus on doing the best job I can do.”
To deal with this stress, Ayeni has begun practicing meditation and breathing exercises to maintain “mental equilibrium” among the mind games of his opponents and their coaches. He has also focused on enjoying the game itself.
“Creating a type of environment where he can escape [the stresses of school], giving him a place where he can enjoy being on the court, that’s really helped him,” Coach Funkhouser said.
While Ayeni said he can’t completely ignore expectations, Ayeni said he doesn’t focus as much on them as he once did. In his own estimation, he’s matured a lot, putting aside what others expect of him and just doing his best.
Growth creates success
Funkhouser attributed Ayeni’s success directly to his maturity
“[Alafia’s growth] has changed [him] from a player to really a competitor. … He’s really matured as an individual …, and when you’re disciplined off the court, it makes it easier to be disciplined on the court.”
Alafia’s maturity and perseverance were on full display at the ITA Regionals. In his first match, Alafia entered his element. Because of his speed, jumping and powerful service, Ayeni prefers to come to the net and be aggressive.
This strategy was effective in his first two matches, defeating his opponents in dominating fashion. The real challenge began in his third match against Harvard freshman David Lins.
Lins took the first set, and both Ayeni and Funkhouser said the early matchup was extremely physical and taxing. But the experienced Cornellian didn’t give up.
“Players who don’t have as much experience sigh — they relax when they win the first set,” Ayeni said, referring to Lins.
This proved to be the case as Ayeni stormed back, winning the next two sets, 6-1, 6-0.
“I think [the adjustments Ayeni made] really show how he’s matured as a player,” Funkhouser said. “Sometimes what you need to do is not blast shots. Go for winners at inopportune moments. Make them play a longer game … Making them hit even just one or two more balls can sometimes change the course of a match.”
Ayeni noted that sometimes, “just aiming for winners,” can be really costly. For him, making his opponent work for every point, using his athleticism and conditioning to his advantage and creating more physical matches are key in beating tougher opponents.
After winning his next match in two close sets (6-4, 7-5), Ayeni was in the make-or-break semifinal round, the qualifying round for nationals. In his opinion, Ayeni was facing his toughest opponent: Harvard’s Harris Walker.
Once again, adjustments and mental toughness proved essential to Ayeni. In this back-and-forth first set, each player forced their opponent to work for every point, and Ayeni’s ability to wait that extra ball or two proved critical as the set ended, 7-6(8), in his favor. Now it was his opponent who faded, and Ayeni pressed his advantage to win the second set, 6-3, and secure himself a spot in the ITA Nationals.
Perhaps his most impressive feat of all, however, was Ayeni’s finals match. Already having spent 4.5 hours on the court and having just played in a doubles match, Ayeni hopped into a match that lasted three hours and three long sets before Ayeni emerged victorious (6-7, 7-6, 6-3).
“That win meant a lot to me … it showed me I could really fight through the tired,” Ayeni said. “I really just dug in … it all came down to mental strength.”
Ayeni’s success says just as much about who he has become off the court as it says about who he is on it.
“He’s really learned about being diligent, buying into professional habits: being on time, being disciplined with your organization, focusing on your work,” Funkhouser said.
These qualities will be key as Ayeni looks to transition to professional tennis after college. During the pandemic, he had the opportunity to travel around Europe and compete with some of the best players in the world. Already a player on the pro tour and now hopeful that tennis will be his career, Ayeni will be exciting to watch at even bigger tournaments in the future.
Now, Ayeni is currently competing at one of those big tournaments — the ITA National Fall Championships — which runs until Sunday. On Thursday, Ayeni moved on to the Round 16 with a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Kentucky’s Gabriel Diallo.