No one would have been surprised if Clervie Ngounoue had lost to Yuki Naito in the semifinals of the H-E-B Women’s Pro Tennis on Saturday. Naito, 21, has a WTA ranking of No. 211, was seeded second and had not dropped a set all week. Neither had Ngounoue, but she is only 16, a wild-card entry ranked No. 850 and is coming off a long break because of a foot injury. It was Ngounoue, however, who recovered from a lopsided first-set loss to defeat Naito, 1-6, 6-4, 6-2. The Washington D.C. teenager will face sixth-seeded Peyton Stearns in Sunday’s championship match, scheduled for a noon at the Texas Tennis Center.
Ngounoue didn’t blink despite facing a high-caliber opponent in Naito.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘One more game,’ ” a clearly elated Ngounoue said after winning. “The entire match, even when I was up, that was just what I was trying to bring out of myself. ‘One more point, one more point.’”
That level of composure, the sort required to orchestrate such a rousing comeback at this level of the sport, may only be feasible for someone who has been around the game for the entirety of her short life. In fact, even though the ITF reports she started playing at 3, Ngounoue has on-court experience stretching back to before was born.
“When my wife was pregnant, the day Clervie was born, we were on the tennis court,” said Ngounoue’s father and coach, Aimé, following Saturday’s win. “I played with her until one hour before she gave birth, so I always thought that hearing those balls when she was in that stomach, probably dictated what kind of life she would have.” (By the way, the family name is pronounced GOON-u-way — no “N” sound — as her father explains on DropShot Series’ TikTok).
On the precipice of potentially securing her first ITF singles title, Ngounoue is riding high. Traveling from Egypt, to France, to the United States, to Portugal between 2021 and 2022, Ngounoue posted a 2-5 record over her first five ITF singles tournament appearances. In 18 matches since, she has posted an 13-5 record, winning 10 of her past 12. She reached the final of a W15 event in Marrakech in late March.
That stretch does not include a January junior double finals victory at the Australian Open, where Ngounoue lifted the title trophy alongside Diana Shnaider, or an appearance in the U.S. Open women’s doubles tournament, whose field included the legendary Serena and Venus Williams, the ascending Leylah Fernandez, and yes, Stearns, Ngounoue’s opponent for Sunday’s championship match.
Ngounoue is also recovering from a foot injury, which kept her away from the tour for four months. “We’re working on it,” her father said. “We’ll see, she’s getting better. But she plays with it.”
Aimé Ngounoue said his daughter will take the same approach to Sunday’s final as she has for her four previous matches at the Texas Tennis Center.
“We treat every match the same,” Aimé Ngounoue said. “Right now, she’s going to recover. Maybe we’ll come back in the afternoon and just hit a few balls. And then, tomorrow we’ll come early, as we always do … We’ll do about an hour hitting and work on little things that we need to work on. And she’ll get back on the court and just keep doing what we do every day.”
Stearns, a 20-year-old ranked a career-high No. 316, is unquestionably among the greatest tennis players in University of Texas history after becoming the first Longhorn to win an NCAA singles national title this past May. Ngounoue is aware of the challenge her opponent presents.
“I know Peyton, so I know she’s a really good player just like today,” Ngounoue said. “I’m just going to try and fight it out in every single point and see where that takes me. At the end of the day, we’re playing the same game. She’s been playing it longer, but I’m going to take my chances.”
And if she falls behind in the final?
“I’m just going to try and adjust like I did today,” Ngounoue said. “I’m just going to go out there, clear my head and fight it out.”
Story and photo by Corey Smith