By Karen Ronney
La Mesa teen joins USA Junior Tennis
Siem “Sam” Woldeab picked up a tennis racket at age 7 as a fun summer activity. His family lived across the street from the Helix Charter High School tennis courts, so it was an easy choice.
After a few lessons, however, he knew tennis was his sport. Recently, the United States Tennis Association’s Player Development program confirmed that choice as Woldeab was one of eight top U.S. players named to the 2017 USA National Junior Team.
Woldeab, 15, is a sophomore at Helix High. He is ranked No. 2 in both the U.S. and Southern California in the Boys’ 16’s Division. As a USA National Junior Team member, he will receive training opportunities, coaching and travel assistance to play select USTA National Championships and ITF junior tournaments this summer.
“I really want to go pro,” said Woldeab, a 6-foot 1-inch teen from La Mesa. “I know it will be hard but I have the drive.”
In 2008, Siem joined clinics led by Coach Lois Szepaniak and Coach Stan Jefferson at the East County Community Tennis Association Junior Programs. He also occasionally played in the site’s NJTL classes and on Junior Team Tennis squads. It was clear this was a life-changing opportunity.
“In the beginning, Siem was just like all of the other kids,” Szepaniak said. “After his first season of Junior Team Tennis, he fell in love with the game. He knew this was going to be a big part of his life. You could just see it when he played. He had passion and that made the difference.”
Woldeab is a first generation American born child to immigrant parents from Eritea, East Africa. His father, Tewolde “Ted”, and mother, Semainesh, have worked hard to give Siem and his 13 year-old sister, Winta, the opportunity to play tennis.
Ted is a taxi driver on the graveyard shift, and Semainesh is an accountant, who works a traditional day shift. They are firm believers in the importance of education. During the summers, they tutor their children and prepare them for the next grade level in many core classes. As a result, Woldeab maintains a 4.6 GPA with challenging courses.
“Our plan is never to leave the kids by themselves,” Ted said. “We are there first to keep them out of trouble, and second, to help them get an education with a scholarship. If it works out they play professional tennis, that is a gift.”
Woldeab plays tennis twice daily with Coach Stan Jefferson at Martin Luther King Park. They meet before school from 6 to 7:30 a.m., and again after school from 4 to 6 p.m. four days a week.
The technical support from Jefferson and family help at home has given Woldeab the confidence to succeed. His current goal is to win the USTA National Boys’ 16’s Hardcourt Championships this summer.
“All I did was to create an environment to help him develop into a world class athlete,” said Jefferson, who has coached Woldeab for eight years. “This is available to all of the kids in my program but Siem has taken my message to heart. I credit his success to personal drive and inspiration.”
Woldeab’s dedication and commitment is also evident to Helix Charter High Varsity Boys’ Coach Jay Diaz. As a freshman, Woldeab was the Valley League singles champion and the player of the year. He was undefeated in league play.
“If you go to high school, it is a responsibility to give back and make your school look good,” Woldeab said. “It’s fun and it helps my team. I am always willing to play when they need me.”
Diaz said Woldeab has a mature tennis game with a level head. He is well-rounded and never tires on the court. He is the quintessential team player with a positive attitude.
“Siem doesn’t stress about anything,” Diaz said. “He is calm and patient. He’s a strategist and thinks three shots down the road. He was blessed with the perfect mindset and the ability to play the game. You can’t teach him, you can only mold him.”
If professional tennis doesn’t work out right away, however, Woldeab has a great back up plan — one that is more aligned with his parent’s goals for him.
“I’d love to go to Stanford University,” he said. “It would be a dream to play tennis there and get a great education. Then when I’m ready, I could become a professional. So I guess it could all work out either way.”
—Karen Ronney is an award-winning author, USTA Tennis Service representative and the Girls’ Varsity Tennis Coach at Patrick Henry High.