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Strength in diversity: How Jessica Pegula, Vania King and fellow founders created the Asian American Pacific Islander Tennis Association
This national, non-profit advocacy group aims to better and more effectively represent a sizable but woefully underserved tennis-playing population.
Published Oct 11, 2022
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NEW YORK—When Vania King announced her retirement from professional tennis in April 2021, it was time. For one, the former world No. 3 in doubles had planned to do it a full year earlier, until the world had other plans. And second, from a forward-looking perspective, the 32-year-old had new goals in mind.
“I’ve been ready for a year, I’ve been emotionally ready for about a year and a half, so I’m really excited for the next chapter,” King told Tennis Channel’s Steve Weismann in Charleston, S.C.
A year and a half later, one part of that chapter has been revealed: the Asian American Pacific Islander Tennis Association (AAPITA). With a mission “to develop, grow and elevate the visibility and interests of the AAPI tennis community,” this national, non-profit advocacy group aims to better and more effectively represent a tennis-playing population that has “consistently indexed higher than overall population levels based on ethnicity.”
That sizable population, to King’s dismay, has not equated to adequate representation in the places that matter most. A Taiwanese-American from California, King has spent some of her post-playing days working with the USTA, and during that time took notice of the lack of diversity in upper-level management around the tennis industry. Boardrooms remain a hurdle to minority interests. At this year’s USTA annual meeting—attended by around 800 people, estimates King—she was shocked at how few Asians were in attendance.
“That was the final catalyst,” says King, “to me saying, OK, what can we do about this?”
It all made clear what King already knew: the sizable AAPI playing base has been woefully underserved in terms of funding, programs, leadership and recognition.
“There had been a few touch points that resonated with me over the past few years, and it also made me think about growing up, what my playing journey was like,” she recalls. “Not feeling like there was a lot of representation back then. I felt like I was in a white man’s sport.
“Serena retiring actually brought back a lot of emotions, because I [also] grew up in SoCal. I was one of the few players of color. I did struggle. My mom used to tell me, ‘You’re going to be discriminated against. And you can’t say anything, because no one’s going to listen.’”
Away from the tour grind and with an opportunity to “focus on things outside of myself,” King can now turn her attention to encouraging change—along with her fellow AAPITA leaders. One of those colleagues is Tony Cho, Vice President of Data and Technology with the WTA and a Tour Supervisor.
“I have traveled to all corners of the world with the WTA and have seen the strength in diversity of tennis,” says Cho. “I know that we have future AAPI tennis leaders here in the United States, and AAPITA will help to identify those leaders and strengthen our visibility and representation across the country.”
Cho and King are among a group of 14 founding AAPITA members. David Lee, the current USTA committee chair for Advocacy, helped inspire King to act upon her instinct following that seminal meeting. Rajeev Ram (ATP doubles No. 1), Michelle Yu (Emmy award-winning journalist) and Dana Mathewson (2022 Wimbledon Wheelchair Doubles Grand Slam champion) are also among a group that includes athletes to business executives to leaders in a variety of professions.
One of the most notable members from a tennis fan’s perspective, and whose status will unquestionably bolster the AAPITA’s efforts, is Jessica Pegula. As King spoke about Pegula—“such a well-balanced person; philanthropic, entrepreneurial, incredibly talented and even keeled—at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the Buffalo native was preparing to play in her third Grand Slam quarterfinal of the season.
“My mom was adopted and didn’t know much about her heritage growing up,” says Pegula, currently the top-ranked American. “She became more successful, she started understanding more and more how much it meant to be a successful Korean woman in America. She started finding a network of fellow Koreans who really supported her. I think once I started seeing that, and experiencing my own success through tennis, you start understanding that cultural representation is really important.”
That became even clearer to Pegula on a trip she and her sister took to South Korea. A visit to their mother’s orphanage was both humbling and inspiring, and the 28-year-old hopes to pass on what she’s learned from her experiences to future generations of players.
“I think being Asian or Asian American, there are always barriers to break, especially in sport,” Pegula says. “I have always appreciated that my mother never really saw them as barriers until she broke them. I think she always went after her goals and dreams and didn't question it, not realizing she was helping pave the way for others.”
How does the AAPITA plan to execute on its mission statement, goals and values? That is the next obstacle Pegula, King and their fellow founders face. For while the organization’s plans are admirable and progress has already been made, there will surely be more waters to navigate, expected and unforeseen resistance, and a constant need to prove AAPITA’s worth to those who have never considered the challenges Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders face.
Luckily, it’s a challenge King has been preparing for her entire life.
“Our goal was to start high level, top down, because it’s very hard to go bottom up at the national level,” says King. But hopefully top bottom to inspire bottom up, and then we meet at the middle.”
My mom used to tell me, ‘You’re going to be discriminated against. And you can’t say anything, because no one’s going to listen.’ Vania King
Unlike the USTA, the AAPITA will not look to execute programs, but rather focus energy on education, celebration and mentorship through advocacy efforts at the local, regional and national levels.
“I would love for this to be a community where we can really inspire, that AAPI can look to us and say, there’s a place for us,” says King.
When King was a young player, her mother told her that what will make a difference is “if you’re successful, and you win.” Vania’s last victory on the court came in March 2021, and she’s more than four years removed from her last singles win (it came at the US Open). But it’s clear that success has followed her into her next chapter—and that chapter will be read by more people than she may have ever could have imagined.
“I think it’s Asian culture in general, due to its collectivist nature,” King says after a pause, “but usually Asians are like, don’t make a fuss, don’t upset anyone—that’s how I grew up. I wish I did more when I was playing, but I couldn’t cope with more than the stress that I had.
“Now I need to do this. I feel very passionate about it. I feel like it’s the right time.”