From junior to tenure: player-turned-professor Ania Bleszynski

From junior to tenure: player-turned-professor Ania Bleszynski

“What tennis has taught me was absolutely invaluable,” says the former top-ranked junior in the United States. “You know what it takes to work hard.”

The USTA Billie Jean King Girls’ 18 National Championships usually takes place in early August. Unfortunately, the pandemic has compelled the USTA to cancel the event this year. While occasionally a player emerges from this tournament and becomes a professional tennis player, far many more go on to enjoy careers in a wide range of fields. Here’s the tale of one accomplished junior who forged a distinct path.

Stanford women’s tennis coach Frank Brennan conceded he was ambivalent when he heard the news that one of his star players, Ania Bleszynski, had enrolled in a challenging math class that took place during his squad’s Tuesday and Thursday practice sessions. Like all college coaches, Brennan believed there was more to the life of a student athlete than blind devotion to a sport. Then again, practice was important, emphatically so at this school that was used to frequently winning NCAA championships.

Brennan initially found himself, not for the first time, awed by the way Bleszynski prioritized intellectual endeavors. He’d seen it years earlier during his recruiting visit to the Bleszysnki home. 

“Typically we come to a house that has tennis trophies all over the place,” says Brennan. “Not this time—not a one.”

But Brennan did see a mockup of a stealth bomber that Ania’s mother, Elizabeth, had helped design, as part of her work at Rockwell International, a Southern California-based defense contractor. Elizabeth held a doctorate in physics, as did her husband, Marek. They’d left Poland in 1977, a year after Ania was born.   

Tennis? It was always a sidelight, no matter how well Ania played it. In 1994, she was the top-ranked junior in the United States. Standing just over six feet tall, the Bleszynski game was quintessential Southern California, propelled by forceful, flat groundstrokes, honed like lasers by the legendary Robert Lansdorp. A powerful serve. And, like most juniors, an increasing sense that coming to net was an idea worth trying more (front-court skills aided by former pro Kathy Blake Bryan, mother of Bob and Mike). 

Yet as much as Bleszynski had achieved by her late teens, even at that young age, she was aware that her life was not going to be defined by athletics. Maybe it would have been if she’d caught lightning in a bottle and generated some remarkable results at a young age, but that wasn’t the case. Nor did she care much for the life of a tennis gypsy.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional tennis player,” says Bleszynski. “I didn’t want to just be a Top 70 player. I wanted to be a Martina, Chris, Graf, Monica. Anything else wasn’t going to do it for me. When I chose to go to college, I knew tennis was finite.”

Finite: a word you’d expect to hear less from an ambitious athlete and more from a scientist—which was really what Bleszynski wanted to be upon arrival at Stanford in the fall of 1994. When perusing prospective colleges, most student athletes enjoy a cozy trek that involves a fair amount of time at sporting events and parties while gaining street-smart insights from students and others on how to balance athletics with academics. Bleszynski, armed with a score of more than 1550 (out of 1600) on the SAT, and more curious about splitting the atom than mastering the split step, insisted on attending math and science classes.

As her college days began, Bleszynski’s idea of rebelling from her family’s focus on physics was to study math. 

“Her parents always put a value on education over tennis from the beginning,” says Julie Scott Thu, a frequent Bleszynski doubles partner at Stanford who remains one of her closest friends. “She had the complete opposite of tennis parents you can imagine, and she benefited from that.” 

Current Stanford coach Lele Forood was Brennan’s assistant during Bleszynski’s college years. 

“In Ania’s case, it was anti-parenting over participation,” says Forood. “She came in with a certain maturity that was different than most people. I would watch her do math problems on the plane that would go on for ten pages—and she would do them in pen.

“Two weeks in, I asked her how [that challenging math class] was going. She told me it was hard, that the professor wasn’t very good, that she was the only girl in the class, and that everyone else in it had a beard and kept their bike helmets on during class. Of course, she never dropped the class. And of course, she got an A.” 

Bleszynski also fared quite well in tennis.  In 1998, her final year of eligibility, she reached the finals of the NCAA singles championship. Becky Bell, who coached againsyt Bleszynski while at the University of Arizona, has vivid memories of seeing her read physics books in between singles and doubles matches. 

“You knew she was a brilliant student,” says Bell. “She brought so much to the table. She never got rattled. She had a very high tennis IQ and could problem-solve.” 

But as many players Bleszynski had grown up with competed in pro tournaments and wondered what the future held, she turned her eyes to what at heart was the family business. Summers were often spent at places like Lockheed Corporation and Stanford, extensively studying DNA, Einstein’s theory of relativity and the Human Genome Project.

“She had this physics pedigree,” says Thu. “That kept her really grounded and focused. But she was able to compartmentalize it. She never talked much about physics and what she wanted to do. We saw the teammate.” 

Bleszynski would eventually earn a doctorate in physics at Harvard, where she’d meet her husband, Andrew Jayich, a fellow physicist who had zero involvement in tennis.

Since 2010, Ania Bleszynski Jayich has been a professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. 

“I try to understand how the world works,” she says. “I try to understand the physical laws of nature, how forces work, how light works.”

No question, those thousands of hours spent hitting crosscourt forehands and backhands come in handy when Jayich grinds her way through mountains of data. 

“What tennis has taught me was absolutely invaluable,” she says. “You know what it takes to work hard. I have no problem working on something for a week straight. There’s also a fierce competitive part of me, but when something happens such as not getting a grant proposal funded, it doesn’t affect me personally. I know how to handle failure.” 

Jayich also appreciates an attribute shared by tennis and physics: each is clear-cut. In physics, there are right answers and wrong answers; in tennis, winners and losers. The mindset of hardcore competition and gracious sportsmanship also informs Jayich’s approach to instruction.

“I’m not an easy teacher,” she says. “I’m not very lenient. I get a lot of excuses and I’ll admit I’m not very tolerant of them.”

These days, when she isn’t busy with research, teaching and raising her three children, Jayich plays tennis twice a month. Yet while many ex-college players, weary from the zeal it takes to compete, prefer rallying, Jayich finds that boring: “I have to play a set,” she says.

Jayich is even toying with playing some tournaments. Said Thu, who is also a board member of the National Women’s Tennis Organization: “She has a doubles partner waiting for her if she comes back.”

When asked what she would tell aspiring juniors, Jayich believes that, “Tennis shouldn’t dominate your life. I’m not saying ‘loosen up, it doesn’t really matter.’  It’s OK to be wrapped up in that pursuit. But tennis should be fun. It doesn’t have to be the be all and end all.”   

In addition to her work as a college coach, Becky Bell conducted and published, Training for Transition, an extensive research study about how student athletes. Among the women she interviewed, the biggest challenge they faced was “finding something else I was passionate about.” 

This was never an issue for Ania: “I could be happy with just physics in my life.”