By Bailey Andress
Many Collegiate students and faculty do not know her at all. Some know her as a new classmate. A select few know by her popular nickname: “Tennis Jesus.”
Born in Atlanta Georgia, Helena Huff (‘21) spent her early childhood in Georgia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., before moving to Richmond when she was seven. From a young age, her seemingly endless energy was clear. Sports offered a way to channel this energy, and Huff soon found herself participating in soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and swimming. However, it was a casual suggestion by her grandmother that prompted the young athlete to try tennis. Huff recalls “falling in love” with the sport after just a single clinic at acac, an athletic club in Midlothian. Following the initial trial, she soon joined a group clinic that met three times a week before later starting private lessons. Eventually, she signed up for a series of summer matches and learned to keep score after her first match at age nine, which ended in an 8-0 loss.
Her sustained dedication to tennis is clear in her accomplishments. Currently, Huff is ranked first in Virginia’s 14-and-Under division and plays number one on the Collegiate Varsity Tennis team. Additionally, she competes in national-level competitions and zonal tournaments during the summer months. Huff recalls “feeling like an outsider” when introducing herself to the highly competitive junior tennis scene. However, after growing accustomed to weekends spent driving to and from tennis events, she began to view her coaches, trainers, and competitors as “one big family.” Her skill and positive nature have contributed to her nickname, “Tennis Jesus” (or “T.J.,” for short), coined by fellow tennis team member Alyssa McDaniel (‘20) after Huff defeated Norfolk Academy’s number 1 singles player, arguably the toughest competitor in the VISAA (Virginia Independent School Athletic Association). When questioned about the inspiration behind the name, McDaniel stated “She just is [Tennis Jesus]. She just is.”
Huff herself is adjusting to her new identity, along with life in the Collegiate community, as she recently completed eighth grade at St. Bridget School. She views her daily life in terms of what she has learned from the past, especially with regards to prioritizing her time. Huff admits, “you have to give and take,” while highlighting the importance of balancing school, tennis, and friendships. She validates her choices based on what “brings [her] happiness,” and approaches challenges with the same work ethic she demonstrates on the court. As her freshman year begins, Huff is optimistic. She looks forward to her first Upper School dance and is already planning an Oddball costume. Eager to “experience everything” Collegiate offers, she participates in dance classes and can often be found working on schoolwork or chatting with friends in the Saunders Family Library.
Understandably, Huff plans to maintain her training and pursue tennis after high school. She aspires to find a Division I college that is both athletically and academically strong and is considering finding a job related to the sport. Describing tennis as a “seed,” Huff emphasizes that the sport can start as a pastime and eventually grow into new opportunities. She uses this as motivation to continue her diligence on and off of the court. With the help of her family, she spends a large portion of her free time traveling to tournaments throughout the country, including those in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Maryland, Washington D.C., North Carolina, South Carolina, California, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Nevada. Her dedication has earned an impressive four-star (out of five) recruitment ranking, along with a national ranking of 124.
Proud of her years of hard work, she accepts that she is often defined by her tennis. For those who know her well, however, tennis is not her only defining characteristic. She has an intense fondness for gummy bears, can sing along to almost any song (whether she knows the lyrics or not), and occasionally documents her adventures on a Snapchat story that can only be described as legendary. Huff also has moderate psychic abilities, as she took a training course on detecting nervousness in a competitor. She claims it’s all in the eyes.
Huff is more than a tennis player, new student, or even freshman. Her competitive drive and endless energy are evident both on and off the court, and her laugh can only be described as infectious. Eager to learn more? Consider taking a pilgrimage to the Willliams-Bolettieri Tennis Center to see her in action.