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More Than Baseline: City College Tennis Player Named ITA Sophomore Athlete of the Year

Ariel Xu returns the ball in a singles match against Foothill on Friday, March 8, 2024.
Photo by Don Collier/The Guardsman

By Kyra Young

It was a blustery Tuesday afternoon at City College’s tennis courts where Ariel Xu could be found working on her approaching stroke. Xu’s ponytail whipped in the wind with each swing of her racket, responding quickly to head coach Mary Graber’s consistent, underhand serves.

Graber challenged Xu off the baseline, but Xu’s hustle did not miss a beat. With a swift forehand swing, Xu sent a final rocket of a cross-court shot out of Graber’s reach, ending the session on a strong note.

The next morning, City College would be sending Xu along with teammates Christina Ling, Michelle Lee, and Pam Dineva to Ojai, Calif. for the CCCAA State Championships.

With tennis balls collected and players bundling up from the wind, Xu’s eager energy continued to radiate from sideline to sideline.

“Hey Mary, will the gates be open tomorrow morning? Could I get here early and work on my serves before we leave?” Xu asked.

Graber laughed. “What? But we’re leaving early tomorrow morning!”

“I know but… I just want to practice a bit more. I could come in really early,” Xu assured, a smile on her face as Graber shook her head in amusement.

On the bench, Ling and former teammate Alanna Hale smiled at the conversation as they packed up their bags.

“She’s there for every practice or game … she hasn’t really missed anything, really,” said Ling in regards to Xu. “Just goes as a testament to Ariel’s work ethic to be the best player and compete at her best ability. She always shows up.”

Cross-Court, Cross-Sea, Cross-Country

Ariel Xu, a five-foot-seven returning sophomore for the Rams, continued to cement herself throughout this past season as a standout tennis player in the NorCal region for the CCCAA.

But her success and growth over the past two years at CCSF reach far beyond the boundaries of the tennis court. One might even argue it spans an entire ocean.

In the late summer of 2022, at 18 years old, Xu arrived in San Francisco to meet the only connection her family had in the United States on a one-way ticket from her hometown of Guangzhou, China. Alongside her came two suitcases and a tennis racket.

In Xu’s near-two years living in San Francisco, she has adjusted to a different country, city, culture, language, and a newfound sense of independence at the current age of 19. She is in her second and final year of enrollment at City College, studying data science and statistics, volunteering and working according to her visa, all the while holding a reputation as a tenacious player for the Rams women’s tennis team and the grander NorCal region.  

“She is fantastic,” said Graber, who spares no words in honor of Xu’s character. “I’m more– having raised 3 adults myself–  amazed with what she’s accomplished this season. With English as a second language, and a whole new city and culture to adjust to…Ariel’s remarkable, and I’m not even talking about tennis.”

Ariel Xu smiles between sets on Friday, March 8, 2024.
Photo by Don Collier/The Guardsman

Tennis came into Xu’s life around the age of six when she began playing for her father, who began coaching youth tennis in Guangzhou after jump-starting a small tennis club with Xu’s grandfather. Xu’s father served as her coach for a majority of her career until her move to San Francisco. 

Growing up, her game was primarily focused on singles; playing doubles did not come until Xu played for Graber.

“I didn’t really know how much I actually liked tennis until I started playing for Mary,” Xu said. “Back in China, I didn’t really resonate with the game. I was not sure who or what exactly I was playing for. It was more private and focused on individual play, not so much for a league.”

A majority of Xu’s high school experience was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a longer enforced quarantine in comparison to other parts of the world. 

“My time playing was more informal,” Xu said, who attended Joy Academy, a Christian school in Guangzhou. “There were no tournaments or a game schedule. It was mostly pickup and fitness training with other people and coaches.” 

Upon graduating from Joy Academy in the spring of 2022, Xu’s parents gifted her with a one-way ticket to San Francisco for her birthday. She would be turning 18 that July. 

 “My family was fairly unfamiliar with the city before I came here,” Xu said, who added that it was her idea to move to the U.S. on a student visa for her education, but her parents pushed for her to live in San Francisco specifically. Xu’s father had a friend living in the city’s Mission District, which was the family’s only connection in the United States.

That August, Xu left her parents and younger sister for a flight to California on a student visa, traveling some 6,000 miles across the Pacific. Xu then enrolled herself in courses at City College for the approaching fall semester. 

Unfamiliar Places With Familiar Spaces

Ariel Xu returns the ball in a doubles match against Foothill on Friday, March 8, 2024.
Photo by Don Collier/The Guardsman

 Despite the sudden sense of independence, Xu’s father pushed her to continue playing tennis.

“He told me, ‘I might be far away, but you’ve still gotta play! You can’t give up exercising!’ He pushed me to find a tennis team within the school,” Xu recalled, and laughed at the memory. After her first week of classes at City College, Xu passed a flier for the women’s tennis team on a bulletin board containing Graber’s email. 

 “I sent Mary an email asking if I could attend a practice, and she invited me to come and try out,” Xu said.“It was my first experience playing for a team, with a team. Suddenly, I am playing not only for my teammates, but also a school, a community. Playing for Mary, I’ve experienced how supportive that can be. It’s nice to represent something.”

Graber returned as head coach of the women’s tennis team in 2022, a full circle in her coaching career since her start at City College in 1989, where she held the head coach position for 15 seasons. Over the past two years, she has watched Xu grow into herself, and then some. 

“She came into her first year shy, with so many barriers,” Graber said. “But tennis is a universal language, it’s a comfort and her connection to home. Ariel is exemplary of growth and admiration, with the courage to do anything … I’ve been lucky to watch her expand these qualities within herself.”

For Graber, Xu’s best performance came with her hard-fought win against No. 1 ranked Nahreen Cheam with Northern California’s top-ranked American River College (ARC) back in March. 

“She played talented and thoughtful tennis against American River’s number one, and came out with a 10-7 win,” Graber recalled. Xu’s match was the lone victory in an otherwise tough loss for the Rams, from which Xu moved up to secure the No. 1 seed. 

“It’s remarkable to have such a high level player be so modest. She shows up for everyone, and hasn’t missed a practice once. With her talent, she stepped into a leadership role of sorts this season,” Graber said, who added that the 2024 team was composed of five returning players (including Xu) and seven new.

“It’s remarkable to have such a high level player be so modest. She shows up for everyone, and hasn’t missed a practice once. With her talent, she stepped into a leadership role of sorts this season,” Head Coach Mary Graber regarding Xu
Photo by Don Collier/The Guardsman

Xu humbly admitted that she, too, was proud of her performance in the match versus Cheam. “She’s a very talented player – definitely the best in the NorCal division this year. I was very impressed with her stats coming into the season, and I knew that game was going to be challenging. I had to turn it on.”

 Assistant coach Lance Johnson would second such words in regards to Xu’s fighting spirit. “When it gets tough, she’s the one that digs and fights,” Johnson said. “Ariel is tenacious. Fearless.”

Christina Ling, a returning sophomore for the Rams and an exceptional athlete in her own right, has played alongside Xu both years. Both she and Xu advanced in their overall athleticism, as well as their doubles game.

“This year, Ariel was very driven to come in at her best level to play a great season. She’s always there, every week with our trainers Emerald, Sara, Eduardo and Alex – and that’s off the court,” Ling said. “Tennis is a very mental game, and she has one of the strongest mental resiliences out there. She’s got such a fire in her and rises to every challenge, sure to give her best effort until she absolutely can’t.”

Both traditionally singles players, Ling and Xu favor playing the baseline. But when they played together in doubles for the Coast Conference Individuals last year, they came out with a smooth victory. 

“When we play together, it’s very smooth – I know she has my back, and we’ve built a good sense of understanding each other’s movements on the court together,” Ling recalled. 

“We were both able to speak to each other in Chinese on the court in that tournament, which was good practice for me, and it was fun to communicate like that on the court,” Ling said, smiling at the memory. “But it’s been really cool watching her improve her English-speaking abilities with the team.” 

Coming-of-Age, On And Off the Court

Aside from her own anxieties about living far from family in a new country, Xu said the prominence of Asian culture in San Francisco made for a much smoother transition. The city’s large presence of a Cantonese-speaking population in particular, similar to Guangzhou, assisted in Xu’s adjustment a great deal.

“San Francisco is known for their Asian community,” said Xu. “It can make integrating a lot easier in that way. There’s a large Cantonese-speaking population here, which I speak along with Mandarin, but I would still consider English my second language.”

Aside from a newfound independence living away from family, navigating the culture of self-sufficiency in the U.S. has proven to be a challenge for Xu.

“You really have to take care of yourself. There’s no one to tell you what to do – which can be very freeing and flexible, but I have to be in charge of myself,” Xu said. Building a self-directed sense of time management and depending on public transportation are just two of the obstacles she has grappled with since settling in. 

“There’s a lot more independence here in general. I would say it’s a Western culture thing. In Eastern culture, there’s a big emphasis on the connection between parents and their children, and supporting the elders. But it’s important for the children to pursue a good education and job,” Xu said. 

Looking toward the future, Xu is in the process of exploring the numerous colleges throughout the state, with her eyes on UC Davis or UC San Diego. Xu added that she would like to stay in America after graduating on a working visa, and noted she would consider playing tennis at the university she transfers to. 

Following the Coast Conference Championships, the Rams sent four players to southern California for the CCCAA State Championships, including singles qualifiers Xu and Ling, who would also compete as a doubles team together, as well as the freshmen doubles duo of Pam Dineva and Michelle Lee.

After an opening-round bye, Xu went on to win her second-round match versus Anya Villanueva of San Diego City College, and her third-round singles match versus Yesugen Ganbaatar of Santa Monica College. Xu finished the State Championships after a loss to Mane Sargsyan of Glendale Community College in her fourth-round singles match.

In the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s (ITA) final wrap up of the season, Xu was ranked at

No. 8 in the CCCAA National Ranking for the Top 75 Singles Players.

On April 23, the ITA announced the 2024 ITA JUCO Women’s Regional Award recipients, in

which they recognize coaches and players for excellence on the court and within their communities. In the closing of her 2024 season, Xu was awarded as ITA Sophomore Player of the Year for Region I.

“Ariel was truly the standout of the season,” said Graber. “That award is huge – a recognition of sportsmanship, leadership, and one’s student-athlete career. It’s a very strong reflection of her.”

ITA Sophomore Player of the Year for Region I Ariel Xu
Friday, March 8, 2024.
Photo by Don Collier/The Guardsman

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