Alafia Ayeni may not be a household name on the ATP Tour, but that is not stopping him from making an impact by giving back to the sport.
The 23-year-old, who is competing at this week’s ATP Challenger Tour event in Astana, Kazakhstan, started his own brand Team 3x, designed to inspire and empower minorities in sports to overcome structural barriers and social stigmas. The former University of Kentucky star Ayeni launched Team 3x in 2022.
“Growing up, I think one of the biggest barriers to entry for this sport is the financial aspect of it, buying equipment, buying shoes, strings, those are all very high costs,” Ayeni told ATPTour.com recently at the NCAA championships in Lake Nona, Florida. “And for someone, even a middle class family, it’s very difficult to make it because of those things.”
Originally from San Diego, California, Ayeni played four seasons at Cornell University before transferring to the University of Kentucky, where he went 18-9 in dual-season singles and earned ITA All-American honours this year. Thanks to the ATP/ITA Accelerator Programme, Ayeni’s hard work is rewarded with up to eight qualifying spots at select ATP Challenger Tour events in the next year.
World No. 427 Ayeni is inspired to use his platform to provide opportunities to minority children. His father, Anthony, hails from Nigeria but moved to the United States at age 17 and now works as a lawyer. Alafia’s mother, Pamela, is a software engineer, which he said helped spark his interest in game design and coding.
Ayeni is a self starter. While he was at Cornell University in New York, he taught himself to play piano. When he began Team 3x, he launched a clothing line with profits being used to assist juniors in his stomping grounds of southern California. The goal is to ignite aspiring athletes’ careers by helping them travel to national junior tournaments.
“I think that the sport has been a little bit stigmatised within the minority community, especially the African-American community,” Ayeni said. “Growing up, playing tennis, even in high school, you tell people you play tennis and they’re kind of really surprised. They don’t view it as a viable option to get to college or to make a living. Whereas they view basketball, football, or track as very viable options. I think that’s a cultural stigma. That’s something that my company is working to overturn.”
The first merchandise release consisted of 68 sweatshirts. Why an arbitrary number like 68? The late Arthur Ashe won his first major in 1968, when he became the only African-American man to triumph at the US Open.
Just one year into Team 3x, Ayeni quickly found support on and off the court while spending his graduate season in Lexington, Kentucky.
“The University of Kentucky has helped me out a lot,” Ayeni said. “Having an entire university at your back will really help you gain reach, you can connect with the right people, and it really helps your brand grow.”
Under the tutelage of head coach Cedric Kauffmann at Kentucky, Ayeni helped the Wildcats claim their first SEC title since 1992. Ayeni is one of 21 players to benefit from the all-new ATP/ITA Accelerator Programme, which aims to increase the development pathway for top players in the American Collegiate system.
“I think he had a big growth year,” Kaufmann said. “He’s a lot more stable mentally, physically also, feels really good. He’s just a very tough player, very aggressive player. He comes to the net; not a lot of players come to the net anymore that much. He has the power and athletic ability to play some very good points at the big moments.”
Though the American is not using an Accelerator spot at this week’s President’s Cup in Astana, fans will continue to see Ayeni on the ATP Challenger Tour.
“This accelerator program is going to help a lot with a lot of the internationals in terms of competing and taller status and raising the level of college tennis for years to come,” Ayeni said.
The seventh seed Ayeni will meet qualifier Evgeny Philippov in the Astana Challenger opening round Tuesday. Fans can stream all ATP Challenger Tour matches live and on demand for free at Challenger TV.