SportsImani Jean: Freshman standout achieves early success at Howard

Imani Jean: Freshman standout achieves early success at Howard

From the late Althea Gibson to retired legendary players such as Serena and Venus Williams and Zina Garrison to Naomi Osaki, Sloane Stephens, Ora Washington and Coco Gauff, Black women have been barrier-breakers and powerhouses who have made their marks on professional tennis courts.

Now, Imani Jean, a freshman member of the Howard University women’s tennis team, is getting lots of attention for her early success on the court. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Jean currently has an 11-3 record in singles matches with a streak of seven straight wins, and is also a member of the Bison doubles team. In addition, Jean is a shoo-in for Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year after having been named Rookie of the Week six times this season. 

Jean has an interesting journey to her current journey. It all started as a 6-year-old.

“I saw Serena playing at the U.S. Open when I was like 6 years old and told myself that was who I wanted to be like,” recalled Jean. “My mother decided to enter me into a USTA tennis program and that is how it started for me.”

Her serious competitive days began at age 13, when Jean began dividing her time between Brooklyn and College Park, Maryland, where she trained at Junior Tennis Champions Center. She attended an online high school. 

Jean was a part of an intensive program that put a great emphasis on high-level training.  She was on her way to the type of exposure that interests recruiters.

But things took a sudden turn and quickly changed momentarily for the aspiring teenager.

“I suffered an injury in my junior year,” explained Jean.”Now I was being recruited by some high-level [Division II] schools as far away as California, but Howard offered, and I decided I wanted to come here because I wanted to be amongst people who look like me and shared some common interests.”

Jean said she is shocked by how quickly she’s been able to thrive at Howard. 

This has all been surprising to me. I did not expect this kind of success this early,” she said.

However, not everything has been smooth sailing for the college freshman.

“The biggest adjustment has been in academics. I did classes online. The training was very intense, and we averaged about four hours per day.  The rest of the day was spent studying and with tutors.  It’s changed dramatically,” Jean told The Informer. “Now we train for about two hours and the rest of the time is spent with my studies. It has been an adjustment for me.  The biggest thing is that I am learning time management.”

Jean is classified as a walk-on at Howard, which has helped push her to work harder toward her student-athlete goals.

“Coming to Howard as a walk-on has definitely motivated me,” said the finance major. “My goal is to earn a scholarship.  I have something to prove.” 

Howard associate tennis coach Zach Tobias, a local standout who attended St. Anselm’s in Northeast D.C. weighed in on Jean’s success as a student walk-on.

“I am not at all surprised that Imani has had this early success,” Tobias told The Informer.  

He explained that two key factors have enabled Jean to compete at a high level. 

“First, she is very experienced in terms of her training regimen before she came to Howard,” said Tobias, who has been at Howard for two years and is highly respected in the tennis community. “Number two, she is super driven.  That is a great combination for such a young player at this level. She has had some hard matches this season as a true freshman and has weathered the storm. Again, it is her incredible drive that she has to be great.”

Jean said she truly enjoys competitive tennis.

“I love competing in general,” she said. “When you and your opponent are going at it and you’re both trying your best, you both respect each other, it gives you an idea of how good you are and it forces you to be better.”

While her dream is to become a professional one day, Jean told The Informer that she has a backup plan.

“What I have learned at Howard is the value of the experience. I would love to play professionally one day — that would be great. But being in the School of Business gives me different options.  I plan on doing internships starting this summer,” Jean shared.

Despite going through the regular season undefeated in conference play at 6-0, Jean said that she realizes that the upcoming tournament presents a different challenge.

“We have played each other, and they know some of our tendencies and styles and vice versa,” she noted, referring to conference opponents in the upcoming tournament. “I just have to stay focused and humble. The goal is to win the championship as a team.”

No matter what happens in the tournament, Tobias said this has been a fruitful first season for the freshman.

“She has learned a lot this season and still managed to be successful. In addition to her skill development, Imani also has some things that she does well on the court that allows her to be successful. Her future is bright,” Tobias declared.

Howard begins play on Thursday as the No. 3 seed against Norfolk State at 11 a.m. in Cary, North Carolina. The championship will be played on April 27 at 9 a.m. and will be aired on ESPN+.

Source: Washington Informer


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