Rarified Winner

Tennis pro tours world, chasing success

By R.E. Graswich
July 2019

Raquel Atawo is among the best tennis players in the world. She has made more than $2.2 million and built a comfortable life with her husband in Sacramento on the strength of her speed, reflexes and groundstrokes. She is tenacious and tough and plays with energy that does not betray her age, 36.

But the real secret of her success, the reason Atawo has survived as a touring professional in the Women’s Tennis Association for 15 years, is not the strength of her serve or the drop of her volley. The secret lives inside her head.
Atawo survives because she is a rarity among humans—an athlete who can lose almost every week and not go to pieces. She can endure agonizing stretches of highly public defeats, month after month, year after year, and not lose faith in herself.

“That’s the hardest part,” she says. “Every time you go to a tournament, you know either you’re going to win the whole thing, or you’re going to lose. And most of the time, you’re going to lose. At the end, there’s one winner. Everybody else loses.”

Few athletes want to talk about losing, but defeat is an inevitability they all must reconcile, even hall of famers. Many pros, Atawo included, have added sports psychologists to their retinue along with coaches and trainers and dieticians.

Consider Atawo’s plight in the first half of 2019. She specializes in doubles, and was ranked 44th in the world in May. Her doubles partner is Slovakian veteran Katarina Srebotnik.

 

They began the year at the Australian Open. Won their first three matches and lost in the quarterfinals. After Australia came Russia. Lost in first round. Then Qatar. Lost in quarterfinals. Dubai was next. Lost the opener. Tournaments in Southern California, Florida and South Carolina ended with defeats.

From there, it was Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome: one match win, three losses. She lost in the second round of the French Open. Wimbledon, her favorite event, was on the horizon. In her career, Atawo has won 18 tournaments.

When she’s home in Sacramento, Atawo practices at Sutter Lawn Tennis Club. Over coffee, she’s thoughtful, direct and deeply self-aware. She was a tennis prodigy, embracing the game at age 8 in her hometown of Fresno. She moved to Florida as a teen to attend a high school academy for exceptional players.

“By the time I was in high school in Fresno, there was nothing more I could learn from the coaches there, so my family made the decision to go to Florida,” she says.

The influence of her family—especially her late father, Lawrence Jones—was monumental.
“My sister and I didn’t have a choice about playing tennis,” she says. “Our parents thought the game would provide discipline for us, and that was that. Growing up, you really didn’t say no to our parents.”

Lawrence Jones and his wife, Nancy Kops, were not fixated on tennis careers for their children. Education was paramount. Atawo headed to UC Berkeley, where she became one of the nation’s top-ranked college players. She wanted to join the pro tour before graduation, but her parents objected. She didn’t argue. Her career began after graduation.

The early pro years were rough. She languished in singles rankings. She considered quitting, but decided to compete as a doubles specialist. Still on tour more than a decade later, doubles saved her career.

Four years ago, after marrying her boyfriend from Cal, Toby Atawo, she was living in San Jose. The couple decided their money would go farther in Sacramento.

“We like it here,” she says. “The people are nice and the airport is pretty good.”

When her touring days end, she thinks about graduate school and maybe coaching a college team. Until then, there’s another plane to catch. Another tournament. Another chance.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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