Aboubakare sisters work together on, off the court

Thursday, March 20, 2008

More than 2,500 miles away from their home in Orange, Calif., the Aboubakare sisters meet at their second home of sorts: the tennis court. At the Pizzitola Center, No. 1 singles player Bianca Aboubakare ’11 had just beaten the Massachusetts No. 1 while her sisters, high school senior Carissa and sixth-grader Diana, looked on.

They came with their mother to watch their big sister play, but now it’s the younger sisters’ turn to take the court for a few practice shots. They were dressed in street clothes, with Diana (potential class of 2018) wearing thick boots. Still, the two girls attempt to hit the rubber off the ball, and they raise the eyebrows of coaches and players alike. It’s as if Bianca and Carissa are Venus and Serena Williams – but with another sister. Oh, and there’s a 16-year-old brother who plays tennis, too.

Bianca became fascinated with tennis when she was eight. She watched her father, who has been a tennis player since he was young, compete on public courts. She started hitting with her father for a while and decided she wanted to compete in the sport. By age 10, Bianca would challenge 60-year-old men to friendly competitions.

“At first they played with handicaps,” she said. “Then I was the one who would play with handicaps.”

As she decided to take tennis more seriously, she was joined by her sister Carissa, who is also her closest friend in addition to being her sister.

“They were probably twins that are 51 weeks apart,” said their mom, Thuy Duong. “They started everything together.”

By the time Bianca was 12, she and her sister were playing tennis three hours a day. They still played casual practice sets against each other and received all of their coaching from their father, Anvar.

Even after they hired a coach, Anvar still worked with his daughters on their strategy as well as their speed. Bianca described standing against a fence and having her father hit balls from 10 feet away at her and her sister to increase their reaction time.

Sometimes after he came home from work, Anvar would discuss what the girls did with their coach and how to improve certain tactics.

After Bianca’s sophomore year, the sisters left their high school and enrolled in an online school, which gave them a more flexible, but still rigorous, schedule. Bianca traveled with Carissa all over the world to play more extensively in tournaments. The girls could avoid schoolwork during a tournament week, but had to schedule time later to catch up on assignments.

Bianca and Carissa traveled to tournaments everywhere from Mexico to Taiwan with their mother. They played together in doubles and each succeeded in singles – unless they had to face each other.

“It’s not fun to watch them interact with each other the month following,” Thuy Duong said.

She tried to have the tournament director put the girls on opposite sides of the bracket as often as possible, but sometimes a sister-versus-sister matchup was unavoidable.

“Those experiences were at best very trying,” Carissa said. “It ends up not being about the tennis.”

The family agreed that Bianca and Carissa usually aren’t competitive with each other, especially because their styles of play are so different. Bianca aims for long, mentally tough points, while Carissa likes to approach the net, Thuy Duong said. Despite the one-year age gap between the sisters, their mom didn’t see Carissa comparing herself with Bianca.

“She never had a problem with trying to have a better ranking than Bianca,” she said. “We always taught (Carissa) to go out there and play tennis. Even if she has to meet her sister in the finals, that’s a player, that’s her opponent, not her sister.”

As a doubles pair, the two said being sisters usually has been a major advantage.

“Because we’re sisters, we’re able to communicate with each other in ways others can’t,” Bianca said. “We can kind of predict what the other is going to do on the court.”

Sisterhood has also allowed the two to be blunt with each other on the court, and neither one shies away from constructive criticism.

“Sometimes it might get a little tense,” Carissa said. “If I’m doing something wrong, she’ll let me know.”

Mostly, each has been able to use the other’s competitiveness in practice as an advantage.

“They use each other as a tool to stay on top,” Anvar said. “They always push each other.”

At home and especially on the road, the girls’ mother provided emotional support for them both on and off the court. Thuy Duong described her role as providing “security” for her daughters, but she admitted that she was often the most nervous one once the match started.

“It’s a lot more stressful when we’re at tournaments,” she said. “I always feel like I’m walking on eggshells.”

By the end of last summer, Bianca and Carissa were ranked in the lower 600s in the International Tennis Federation’s doubles rankings, playing in professional tournaments after having climbed to No. 2 in the country for juniors. Through a connection of their uncle’s, they even played a casual set against Taiwan’s Chia-Jung Chuang and Yung-Jan Chan, now ranked in ITF’s top 10 in the world. The Aboubakares lost in a tiebreaker.

When it came time to look at colleges, Bianca knew she wanted to balance athletics with academics. The family agreed that she should be a true student-athlete. Although Bianca was heavily recruited by Arizona State and Texas A&M, she chose Brown for its academics. Once Bianca committed to play here, Carissa still had another year to explore her options. Although she seriously considered a few other schools, Carissa chose Brown because of the school’s academic reputation and her sister’s presence.

Head Coach Paul Wardlaw and Assistant Coach Cecily Dubusker said they were struck by both girls’ commitment to tennis as well as education.

Once their tennis careers are over, Bianca plans to be a doctor dealing with autism and Carissa wants to be a reconstructive surgeon.

“Bianca and Carissa are really school-oriented,” Dubusker said. “You’ll see kids who will be home-schooled so they can train (several hours) a day. For them, school was first.”

Wardlaw said they displayed “good character,” and Dubusker noted that both sisters appear selfless on the court.

Not to be overshadowed is the lone boy in the family, Abraham, who is a junior in high school. He is considering Brown and a few other schools to pursue his own tennis career, he said. Although Bianca claimed her brother never responds to her when she pushes him, Abraham admitted that he takes pointers from both of his older sisters.

“I listen to them; I just can’t let them know,” he said.

As for the baby in the family, pint-sized Diana still has a long time before she has to start thinking about college. But with three tennis-playing siblings in the house, she has had no choice but to breathe tennis from a young age. Thuy Duong even recalls Diana crawling on the court and picking up tennis balls at six months old.

Although there is no rush for Diana to decide her future, the coaches enjoyed the preview they saw two weeks ago.

“She’s legit. We’ll offer her (a spot) now,” Dubusker joked.

In the meantime, the two oldest Aboubakare children look forward to playing doubles together again next fall. Bianca said she was grateful to have her sister by her side for so many years growing up.

“It was a really positive experience. We learned a lot about ourselves as a family,” she said.

Now that they have conquered the junior doubles circuit, Bianca and Carissa have their sights set high for college: becoming NCAA Champions in doubles.

But even if the tennis world can figure out how to stop the dominant tandem, any relief might be only temporary. After all, matching up against Bianca and Carissa is only half the battle.