On a cold January night, under the glaring lights of the Bakersfield Racquet Club, 21-year-old Abraham Asaba warmed up members with drills of lobs and serves. The Virginia Tech tennis player could have gone anywhere, even his native Ghana, for his winter break from school.
Instead, he chose the unlikely college holiday destination of Bakersfield. But with good reason. It was high time for another visit to see his "Bakersfield family": dairy farmers Bennett and Rhonda Slagers. His relationship with the couple began four years ago when he took a bus from San Diego to Bakersfield to play in the U.S. Tennis Association Men’s Futures Pro Tournament aka the Bakersfield Tennis Open. He walked to the Racquet Club from the bus station, played and won.
Having advanced, his next move was to check-in at the closest motel. A club member gave him a ride and asked if he was hungry. He only had a jar of peanut butter and welcomed the pizza and wings he was treated to at Pizzaville. When tournament volunteer Laurie Haagsma, who was already housing a player, heard Asaba was staying at a motel, she reached out to friend Rhonda Slagers who had volunteered at orphanages in Uganda.
During that week in Bakersfield, Asaba was exposed to a number of firsts.
“I took him on a drive through the farms and fields here,” Haagsma’s husband, Gary, said. “He had never seen pistachios before. He rode on a hay truck, milked a cow and toured an almond huller.”
By week’s end, even though he didn’t win, he’d won over the Slagers’ hearts.
“I miss my family but I have another family here in Bakersfield,” Asaba said. “This is now my second home.”
He was back in 2016 and will stay with his Bakersfield family again beginning this weekend as he hopes to gain a wildcard draw for the sixth annual Bakersfield Tennis Open, which gets underway Monday.
At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, Asaba towers over most of his doubles partners. He began playing at the age of 10 when someone recognized his potential and gave him an old racquet.
“My mom used to sell fruit around the tennis stadium and my siblings and I started watching people play who paid us to pick up balls,” he said.
Today his serves and returns clock in at 136 miles per hour and he will graduate in May with a finance degree with plans to continue on the circuit.
His story underscores the important role tournament volunteers play in providing housing for cash-strapped circuit players. It also defrays the expenses of the host organization. For many players, having free lodging can make the difference between whether they participate or not. It is also the experience of a lifetime for host families.
“We are very fond of Abe and have learned so much about him and his country and family,” Rhonda Slagers said.
Next week, their friends, now part of Asaba’s Bakersfield fan club, will be cheering him on from the sidelines. Organizers of the Bakersfield Tennis Open are still looking for host families.
The event, featuring world-class tennis players, will culminate March 17 with $25,000 in prize money going to the doubles and singles winners. Admission to the weeklong event is free. A favorite stop on the circuit for players, the Bakersfield Tennis Open also affords spectators access to play that anywhere else might cost upwards of $1,500 a seat.
Abraham Asaba doesn’t know yet where he will plant roots after graduation. But a case can be made for Bakersfield where he enjoys tremendous support and friendships.