NEW YORK -- As a 16-year-old, Kristie Ahn looked poised for greatness when she made it through qualifying at the US Open and secured her spot in the main draw. Ranked No. 758 in the world entering the tournament, she had stunned the tennis world with her run. The expectations were high for her future despite a first-round loss to Dinara Safina.
That was in 2008, and she never made it back to the main draw in New York again.
That is until this week.
After years of bouncing around the lower levels of professional tennis following earning a degree and competing for Stanford, Ahn has seemingly finally arrived to where everyone -- including herself -- thought she would always be. After a resurgent summer, Ahn received a wild card to this year's event in Queens -- her hometown -- and she took on 2004 US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in her opener.
Ahn needed only two sets to seal the victory. After 11 years of battling injuries, tough opponents and self-doubt, the 27-year-old finally had won a match at a major. When it was all over, her face lit up with a smile and she bent over in disbelief. Safina, the victor from her 2008 match, reached out with a congratulatory message. Ahn shared it on Twitter soon after, writing simply: "You guys. Full. Circle."
And her feel-good story didn't end there. Ahn has played some of the best and most consistent tennis of the tournament thus far with dominant straight-sets wins over Anna Kalinskaya and 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.
She is now one of four American women playing in the round of 16 and will face Elise Mertens, the No. 25 seed, on Monday. While she's not exactly going to go as far as to say she's grateful for her career struggles, she has been reflective in considering how those moments have shaped her on and off the court.
"I'd be lying if I said, like, 'Oh, yeah, I'm so happy I didn't find success right away,'" she said on Saturday after her win. "But to be transparent with myself, as well, I don't know if I ever would have gotten this far if this had happened at a different time in my life. I feel like I've had a lot of closure with myself in different scenarios.
"This is a buildup, accumulation of everything -- yeah, every up and down was worth it. A lot of it sucked, especially when you think about hanging the racket up a couple times along the way. I mean, I literally didn't even think about this moment right now, fourth round, second week, until this morning. Then I was like, 'Wouldn't it be cool to make the second week? Oh, yeah.'"
For every teenage phenom who dazzles the tennis world with a gutsy showing at a Grand Slam, there are countless others who show early flashes of brilliance but are never quite able to put it together. Taylor Townsend, a fellow American who was the top-ranked junior player before struggling in the professional ranks, has charmed sports fans everywhere this week with her inspiring play and a fourth-round run of her own. She spoke openly on Saturday after her win about how challenging her journey in the sport has been and about the different paths she and Ahn have taken compared with others.
"Kristie Ahn who is a wild card, and I think it was her second time playing in the US Open," Townsend said. "I think it's amazing. I think that everybody's journey should be highlighted. Just not when you're doing well.
"It just attests to the growth and the beauty of the sport having consistent people around for years, being able to track people's progress, how they come through the sport. You get media attention from such a young age, like Coco [Gauff], 15, 14 years old, even 13, from getting to the finals of the junior US Open.
"So, I mean, you're able to kind of follow these players through so many years, and you never know when things are going to happen. You continue to work and you continue to kind of pluck away. And some people's paths and some people's, ultimately their journey, everyone's journey is different. Some people's [success] happens quicker than others."
Ahn's path to the present certainly is different from most. There are only a handful of players on the WTA Tour who played at the NCAA level (including her Stanford teammate, Nicole Gibbs) and she is certainly the only player remaining in the draw to have never won a match at a major previously. With a degree in science, technology and society, she has always known she could have a career outside of tennis if she so chose.
The 27-year-old has hilariously shared stories about her parents over the years encouraging her to get a corporate job. "My dad was like, 'So! This is a bit of a problem. How are you going to get into corporate America if you keep winning?'" she told The Guardian earlier this week.
She is one of eight members on the WTA Player Council, and she represents those outside of the top 100 -- even though she is expected to crack that threshold in the latest rankings, no matter what happens on Monday. But she hasn't let herself think about the rankings, or about anything past her match against Mertens. In fact, she has barely even thought about reaching the fourth round. Ahn is just trying to soak it all in, without putting too much pressure on herself.
"I think if I don't fully process it, then I'll never have to fully deal with it," she said with a smile. "When I go back to the hotel, I just think about how awesome of an opportunity it is and what a great experience it's been this week. Nobody can take that away from me. So I'm just so happy about it.
"But up until now, it's literally just been like second to second. I still can't process what just happened, to be honest."