As the person in charge of player development at one of Maryland’s top youth tennis centers, Ali Agnamba has gotten accustomed to newcomers walking through the doors of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) without confidence. But Agnamba immediately saw something special the first time he witnessed a then-6-year-old Robin Montgomery being dropped off by her mother at the JTCC — simply to keep her physically active.
“All she wanted to do was hit balls, and at the age of 6 you couldn’t help but notice her ability and her presence,” Agnamba said. “She walked in and immediately wanted to be better than everybody her age. The way she absorbed everything by watching the older players, I said immediately, ‘This girl can be special if she puts the work in.’ ”
In September, Montgomery proved Agnamba a soothsayer. Just days after turning 17, Montgomery had quite the Saturday on Sept. 11, winning the US Open junior girls’ singles title in the afternoon, followed by the US Open junior girls’ doubles title that evening. It’s the first sweep of those US Open titles since 2004, and the first sweep by an American since Lindsay Davenport accomplished the feat in 1992.
For Montgomery, those matches denoted the end of one chapter — it was the last time she competed as a junior — and the introduction to the next, as she begins her full-time professional career beginning in October.
“Get a lot of matches on the pro tour, and gain some experience,” she said. “I have goals of winning a Slam and becoming a top-5 player. After seeing what Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez did in reaching the US Open finals, it just goes to show that anything can happen in women’s tennis.”
Montgomery lives in Washington, and her development as a tennis player came in nearby College Park, Maryland, at the same tennis center that proved the foundation for the career of professional player Frances Tiafoe. That center, the JTCC, is supported by the USTA and National Junior Tennis and Learning network and provides an introduction to tennis and guidance to help players realize their potential.
Montgomery and Tiafoe, who also had a solid showing at the US Open, where he reached the second quarterfinals of his career, are two of the recent success stories of the JTCC, in Montgomery County, Maryland.
“Our program is designed to keep kids in the sport and, while tennis might be considered an expensive sport to play, we don’t turn anyone away for financial reasons,” Agnamba said. “For what Robin and Frances were able to do in New York this year, it shows to the people looking in from the outside just how special our program is and what type of tennis players we’re able to develop.”
That development doesn’t come without the work ethic. Montgomery showed that ethic the moment she first walked into the facility. She asked lots of questions, studied the older players and always arrived early to put in extra work.
“Some kids would do what you want them to do, but Robin would come to me and ask, ‘What can I do to improve in this area?’ ” Agnamba said. “When she had problems with her serve, I told her to hit 5,000. She came in early and hit extra serves, and recorded it all in her journal until she was done.”
Montgomery was 15 when she won in the under-18 division of the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament in 2019 while earning a ranking as the No. 5 junior player in the world. She turned professional in 2020 and won her first professional title in March 2020 at the $25,000 International Tennis Federation/USTA tournament in Las Vegas.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing the world into a life of isolation.
“While it was tough not being out on the court, and not knowing when we’d compete, the pandemic was good for me because it allowed me to focus on my fitness,” Montgomery said. “I even changed my diet, I went plant-based, and while I miss double bacon cheeseburgers, that’s helped me get into the shape that I’m in today.”
As the sports world returned in 2020, Montgomery actually participated in the 2020 US Open when she lost her opening-round match to Yulia Putintseva (then ranked No. 23 in the world).
This year, Montgomery attempted to reach the US Open’s main draw but lost her opening qualifying match. That led to her entering the junior draw, where she was the No. 7 seed.
“Honestly, my goal wasn’t to win, it was to go out and have fun knowing it was my last juniors tournament,” Montgomery said. “My true goal was just to try to make it past the third round, to be honest. Holding those trophies in the end felt good, and was just another step to where I want to be in my career.”
That next step — as a full-time pro — takes her into a women’s division where 14 players have won in the last 18 Grand Slam tournaments. Watching two teenagers compete for the 2021 US Open title, and witnessing the emergence of Coco Gauff have inspired Montgomery.
“It’s great to see,” Montgomery said of seeing the success of teenagers on the sport’s biggest stage. “And seeing how Coco has come on the scene, it’s definitely motivation as it shows that anything is possible.”
As Montgomery steps into this next phase of her career, her friend, mentor and occasional JTCC training companion, Tiafoe, has offered advice.
“He told me it’s going to be a really long road, and while I’m on it to take the time to enjoy,” Montgomery said. “While I develop my game to its full potential, that’s exactly what I’m going to do — enjoy the journey.”