La Costa standout plays well at USTA Nationals


When Cali Jankowski first tried tennis as a youngster, the La Costa resident really gave it a whack.

Hitting the ball with authority was partly a reflection of how hard Jankowski tried at the sport. Over time, though, she has turned to more finesse than force to become one of the nation’s top junior players.

With her 16th birthday approaching this month, Jankowski is fresh off of competing in her second straight USTA Junior National Girls Hard Court 16s. The tournament is being played in conjunction with the national 18s event this week at the Barnes Tennis Center.

Jankowski, who was seeded third, posted wins over Callie Billman and Chelsea Williams to reach the round of 32 before falling to Victoria Hu on Aug. 9.

“Until about two years ago I was inconsistent, but I hit the ball super hard,” Jankowski said before the tourney. “Now I’m starting to add more dimensions to my game and be more consistent.”

As for effort, it hasn’t wavered since she became a novice at age 7 and subsequently entered tournament play three years later.

“I’m pretty aggressive,” said the 5-foot-9½ right-hander who was ranked 16th in the nation in late July. “Over the years, I’ve definitely added more elements, trying to have more of an all-court game. I like to control points with my serve and forehand.”

Along the way, Jankowski also participated in dance and gymnastics before focusing on tennis. They all share the aspect of being a solo performer.

“I’m an only child, so the individual aspect really attracted me,” said Jankowski, whose first name is pronounced CAL-ee, befitting a native Californian. “I like being out on the court on my own and having total control of the situation on my side. Whereas being on a team, you have to share the victory or share the blame.”

Jankowski took up tennis after watching her mother play in a doubles league at La Costa Resort. While the youngster’s interest grew in the game, there was also overlap, at the old WTA tournament there, with the likes of onetime top-ranked Victoria Azarenka and Rancho Santa Fe’s CoCo Vandeweghe.

For a role model, Jankowski mentions Madison Keys, who this year became the first American to debut in the Top 10 since Serena Williams in 1999. Keys also played on the winning 18s doubles team at the Junior Nationals in San Diego in 2011.

Jankowski won her first match but dropped her second in last year’s tournament.

“Learning experience is a perfect way to describe it,” Jankowski said of that 2015 experience. “It was good for me to compare my game to the top girls, not just whom I was playing, but watching the semis and finals to see what it takes to get to that next level.”

Jankowski trains at the Rancho Santa Fe Tennis Club, often with coach Christian Groh, a German native, who played at San Diego State.

“Overall, Cali has a nice power game,” Groh said. “For her, it’s about finding a balance of being aggressive without overplaying. That can mean being more patient when the errors might go up. She’s improved quite a bit, and she’s figuring it out.”

To help accommodate her tennis schedule, Jankowski is enrolled in online studies through the Laurel Springs School, based in the tennis hotbed of Ojai. She enters her junior year this fall.

Jankowski opened this calendar year with a pair of tourney wins, including the USTA National Selection Tournament on Feb. 13 in Palm Desert.

“Since I was No. 1 seed in both, that was a good confidence boost for me,” Jankowski said. “There’s a lot of pressure being the No. 1 seed, and I was able to pull it off.”

With just the right, lighter touch.

— Thien is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.