Hard work, sportsmanship pays off for Ivy Leaguer from Naperville
Tiffany Chen worked really, really hard in high school -- she scored a perfect 36 on the ACT and graduated with a 4.76 weighted GPA -- while also putting in long hours on the tennis court to make the state finals all four years.
As a result, the 18-year-old from Naperville is exactly where she wants to be -- playing Division I tennis as a freshman at Princeton University.
"I only wanted to come here," Tiffany said of the prestigious school in New Jersey. "Clearly for academics, but also because the tennis program seemed to be one of the better programs in the Ivy League. They won their conference three years in a row, and coach Laura Granville is a stellar coach and human being."
As accomplished as she is, Tiffany has an extra quality that earned her national recognition: impeccable sportsmanship. She is one of two recipients of this year's United States Tennis Association Bill Talbert Junior Sportsmanship Award, given to outstanding tennis players under 18 years old.
The honor is "huge," said Nancy Alfano, chairwoman of the USTA awards committee. Typically winners are recognized at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, but the ceremony in September had to be moved to a different location due to scheduling conflicts, she said.
"It's really about the finest qualities of sportsmanship," Alfano said. "It's basically a person who is a true competitor and has respect for their competitors and plays fairly. And is also a person who is an example for others."
Tiffany is a true team player who never developed an attitude, no matter her successes, said Don Bonet, her former coach at Naperville Central High School.
"She was just down-to-earth. Talking to her, you wouldn't know if she was fourth doubles on junior varsity or Tiffany, who could play at such a high level."
She also chose to stick with high school tennis even after she won the Illinois High School Association singles championship her sophomore year. Others might have opted to work with private coaches, Bonet said.
"She was a great role model," he said.
Tiffany said winning state as a sophomore -- which she attributes to her mental toughness -- was a big surprise. But placing third the following year was upsetting, she said.
"I felt a lot of pressure that year, not just to repeat, but because junior year is recruiting year for tennis and coaches were watching me. I was really nervous."
Tiffany said her strengths are speed, consistency and patience. "I'm just willing to be on court longer than the other person," she said.
Her weakness is her slight 5-foot, 7-inch build, she said.
"I'm smaller than some people I come up against and they can overpower me sometimes, so I am working on that."
Tiffany's parents met in their native Shanghai, China, and immigrated to the United States, where Tiffany and her older sister were born.
Her introduction to tennis came around age 5 via her father, who'd bring her along to play with friends Saturday mornings, and her older sister, whose coach would let her hit a few balls at the end of the lesson.
"To be honest, I was pretty bad at sports in general," Tiffany said. "When I picked it up, it felt really natural and I felt attuned to it. I felt a calling."
She started taking lessons at Naperville Tennis Club and began playing in tournaments around age 8. She competed with the Hinsdale Racquet Club through middle and high school.
She also helped teach kids at the Five Star Tennis Center in Plainfield.
"I really enjoyed it," she said, "because after you've been competing at this level for so long, sometimes you forget what it was like when you fell in love with the sport. It was pretty nice to relive that with the kids."
As much as she loves tennis, academics are most important, she said. She had considered majoring in engineering, but she's going with "undecided" to keep her options open.
"My parents always emphasized that school comes first. That's what ultimately is going to matter in the long run," she said. "Tennis is a passion, but it's not your end goal in life."
Tiffany ChenTiffany Chen
School: Princeton University
Who inspires you? My family, because they have an incredible work ethic but also make time to care for others.
What book are you reading? "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens.
What music are you listening to? I like electronic music.
The three words that best describe you? Optimistic. Bubbly. Warm.