Learner Tien Edges San Diego’s Alafia Ayeni To Win Second Straight Titles On SoCal Pro Series

Learner Tien (photo: Jon Mulvey/USTA SoCal)

SAN DIEGO, June 11, 2024 (by Steve Pratt)

The 2024 SoCal Pro Series has been a wonderful homecoming for Alafia Ayeni, who hadn’t even spent a week in his native San Diego over the past year. A second professional singles title on Sunday would have made for that proverbial ‘having your cake and eating it, too’ moment.

The party was crashed by the Orange County neighbor who has made himself feel right at home at Barnes Tennis Center these past two weeks.

The steady groundstrokes of top-seeded Learner Tien overcame second-seeded Ayeni’s big serve and volley game on the way to a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 victory and a second consecutive men’s singles championship to open this year’s run of seven $15,000-purse ITF World Tennis Tour/USTA Pro Circuit events on the SoCal Pro Series.

Tien, 18, won his fifth ITF World Tennis Tour/USTA Pro Circuit men’s singles crown, and his third on the SoCal Pro Series, dating back to when he won his first pro singles and doubles titles on the same weekend in his hometown of Irvine in June 2023. He acknowledges this week as an example of growth in his tennis mentality and maturity from a year ago.

“I’m glad I was able to make it through both weeks, in terms of just how my body held up and, mentally, how I was able to come out and get it done two weeks in a row. It’s nice to see that I am kind of progressing, especially after coming back from a long break from playing tournaments. It’s a great feeling.

“I know last year (in the SoCal Pro Series), I won in singles and doubles as well, and the following week I was pretty worn out physically and I lost first round. It’s a little more mental. Being able to reel yourself back in after winning a tournament, and then being able to reset and start another one, it was really big for me this year. As opposed to last year — I was kind of still dwelling on the week before. I was kind of out of it. I wasn’t really ready to play.”

Tien will put a hold on his 10-match singles win streak to open the 2024 SoCal Pro Series. He withdrew from this week’s event at the University of San Diego as a means of rest. Provided he recovers adequately, his plan would be to rejoin the SoCal Pro Series next week at Rancho Santa Fe Tennis Club.

Sunday marked Ayeni’s second singles final in his 148th ITF tournament, and his first since he won his only professional title in September 2018 in Canada.

Cornell graduate Ayeni, 24, has been travelling almost non-stop on the ITF World Tennis Tour since finishing his NCAA career at Kentucky just over a year ago. The sentimental value of the past week – in particular, he had his father, sister, brothers and friends watching him just steps off the court on Sunday — was not lost on him.

“It really means a lot to be at home,” Ayeni said. “I honestly don’t know if I would have made it as far as I did in this tournament without the support of my family and my friends. My friends are here, coming every day. Their dedication to support me is something that really uplifts me and it humbles me. I was almost moved to tears, honestly, after that match. I was very happy that I have the support network. 

“I think this is my best tennis of the last two weeks, and I’ve just been kind of rising and rising. I really like the way that I’m headed. Making it to a final gives you a lot of confidence. Even a loss like this will give you confidence.”

Ayeni fought off two match points-against while serving at 4-5 in the second set. His serve and volley game eventually forced, and won, a tiebreaker, and then helped him to get up a break in the decisive set at 3-2 and 4-3, only for Tien to rally from game points down and break right back both times. Tien won the final three games to close out the match.

“At 3-2 and 4-3, he did not miss a single ball,” Ayeni said. “Learner played a great match, from start to finish. He was looking for great shots and he found them a lot of the times. I almost found a way to the title. I know that I did my job well, and I know that I did what I was supposed to do, and he came up with something better.”

Tien knew he had to raise his level to finish the match in elite form in the third set after he said Ayeni pushed him “to the edge.”

Added Tien: “The pressure that he puts on you on his service games, crashing the net a lot of times, was probably the most pressure I’ve felt on returning in the past two weeks. He is very aggressive and very effective serving. It’s nice to know I can dig through those matches.”

Expected to be ranked within the ATP Tour’s top 400 this week, Tien collected 15 ATP singles ranking points and a $2,160 winner’s prize. Ayeni notched eight ATP ranking points and a $1,272 check as runner-up.

Daavettila earns women’s title, doubles champions crowned

In Sunday’s women’s singles final, third-seeded Sara Daavettila (No. 705 WTA ranking), a 26-year-old former ITA All-American at North Carolina, needed 53 minutes to blank 16-year-old junior player Maya Iyengar, 6-0, 6-0.

Newport Beach resident Max McKennon, 22, and Calabasas native Jacob Bullard, 23, won their first ITF World Tennis Tour men’s doubles title on Saturday in defeating Australian Jeremy Jin and Great Britain’s Lui Maxted, 6-2, 6-3.

Senior teammates at Arizona State this past year, McKennon and Bullard gained 15 ATP doubles ranking points each and split a $930 champion’s prize, while runners-up Maxted and Jin banked eight ATP doubles ranking points each and split a $540 check.

In Saturday’s women’s doubles final, second-seeded Carolyn Campana and Lisa Zaar, of Sweden, rallied to eke out a 6-7 (3), 6-4, 11-9 (10-point tiebreaker) victory over top-seeded Eryn Cayetano (raised in Long Beach and Corona) and Lily Fairclough, 2023-24 USC teammates and three-time ITF World Tour doubles champions.

2022-23 Pepperdine University graduate student/player Campana won her first professional ITF World Tour/USTA Pro Circuit championship while Zaar, the Waves’ No. 1 player as a senior in 2023-24, won her fourth ITF World Tour doubles title. Campana and Zaar (both 24 years of age) earned 15 WTA doubles ranking points each and split a $955 winner’s check. Cayetano, 23, and Australian Fairclough, 18, collected 10 WTA doubles ranking points each and split a $515 runner-up prize.