A 1998 match between pro tennis stars Lindsay Davenport and Steffi Graf changed the course of Lindsay Graff’s life.
“When I was 5, I was watching TV and Lindsay Davenport was playing against Steffi Graf and I thought my name is a combination so maybe I should try tennis,” said Graff, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I picked up a racket a few weeks later and I have loved it ever since.”
Graff moved up the ladder in tennis, breaking into juniors in middle school and starring at Pine Crest High, where she was a three-time Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel Player of the year and the Florida Class 2A doubles champ in 2009 and singles champ in 2011.
Joining the Princeton University women’s tennis team in 2011, Graff played like a combination of tennis legends Davenport and Graf this spring, getting named Ivy League Player of the Year as the Tigers went 7-0 in league action on the way to the team crown.
This week Graff and the Tigers, 18-5 overall, head south to the University of Alabama to take part in the NCAA tournament. Princeton is slated to play Arizona State (18-7) on May 9 in the first round with the winner advancing to the next round on May 10 to face the victor of the Alabama/Jackson State opening round matchup.
“It is a good matchup for us,” said Graff, reflecting on Princeton’s first NCAA appearance sine 2010. “We are on a roll and everyone is playing well. We want to win a few matches at the NCAAs and go on a little run.”
It took a while for Graff to get on a roll in her college career. “In college, the biggest challenge is the the physical level, there a lot of bigger and a lot of stronger players,” said Graff, noting that she has packed 20 pounds of muscle on to her 5’5 frame since freshman year. “They hit a heavier ball.”
After earning second-team All-Ivy honors at singles playing at No. 2 and first-team All Ivy at doubles as a freshman, Graff moved to the top spot in singles in 2013, finding a comfort level on and off the court.
“At high school, you are used to being at the top academically and at the top of your activity,” said Graff.
“At Princeton, you are competing with all these kids who were in the same position. I was able to get my priorities in line; it is tough to do everything at a high level. You have to choose the things that are important to you. I love tennis so I have focused on that.”
Last summer, Graff raised the level of her game as she won a regional qualifier for the U.S. Open at singles and mixed doubles.
“That was one of the best experiences for me; I spontaneously decided to play and ended up winning the regional,” said Graff, who ended up falling short of a bid for the U.S. Open as she lost in the national playoffs in New Haven, Conn.
“I was playing a lot and working hard all summer long. It was a great experience to be playing against top players like that. In the second round, I saw a lot of good players and saw where I stood. Coming into the year, I felt a lot more confident.”
Coming into this spring, Graff was confident that Princeton could be an Ivy title contender.
“We had the capability of having a big Ivy season,” said Graff, noting that the arrival of four freshmen this season had upgraded the talent level for the program which posted a 4-3 Ivy mark in 2013.
“We had 10 players and everyone was playing for a spot. I felt that we could be a good team and we would regret it if we didn’t work hard.”
A critical 4-3 win over three-time defending Ivy champion Yale on April 4 showed that Princeton had a very good team.
“We fell behind 3-0 and the girl playing No. 5 (Caroline Joyce) had a big win and our No. 2 (Amanda Muliawan) won and our No. 6 (Katie Goepel) was going into a third set,” recalled Graff.
“I lost the first and was behind in second. It was very much on my shoulders, I knew I had to win the match. I was not going to lose that third set. I was not getting off that court until I won.”
Graff ended up pulling out a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 win over Yale’s Madeleine Hamilton to seal the victory for the Tigers.
“I showed mental toughness; my teammates were cheering me on from the sidelines and I wanted to do this for them,” said Graff. “They were so loud and so genuinely supportive. I try to fight for myself but I was really excited to win for them.”
Heading into the regular season finale against Columbia on April 20 with a one-game lead over the Lions in the league standings, the Tigers weren’t about to settle for sharing the title.
“Columbia did beat us a few weeks before the Ivy season but we were 6-0 we were so hyped up and so confident,” said Graff.
“We were a different team. We showed we weren’t intimidated from the first point of the doubles match; they saw how we had come together as a team. I saw we were up 2-0. In my match it was 7-6, 5-4 and our girl at No. 4 (Sivan Krems) was winning. I was focusing on the match point and then I was swarmed by the team. I realized that No. 4 had won just 20 seconds before so I got the point to clinch the match. It was the best feeling.”
In Graff’s view, the team’s feeling of unity has helped spur it to a title. “Our talent level is there but if our work ethic didn’t match our talent, we might be disappointed,” said Graff of the squad which is guided by second-year head coach Laura Granville.
“For the last 1½ to 2 months, all the players have jumped on board. People are putting it all on the court, we are fighting for each other. We realized we can accomplish more together.”
While accomplishing the Ivy Player of the Year award was exciting for Graff, its main importance to her comes in the context of the team’s success this spring.
“It was one of my goals at the beginning of the year,” said Graff, who has an 18-4 record this spring and is riding a nine-match winning streak heading into the NCAAs.
“I realized when I was 12-4 that each time I lost a match, the team had lost. I lost a match in Miami and I said coming off the court that day that was the last match I was going to lose. I want to win every match. Although every point counts the same, it is important to win at No. 1. Every match I have won has helped the team win so that is the important thing.”
Looking ahead, Graff hopes to someday win matches at the pro level. “I am a junior so I am thinking about that,” said Graff, reflecting on her aspirations to keep playing tennis after college.
“I would love to stay in the game. Tennis is my favorite thing to do; there is no other place I would rather be than on the tennis court. It is high priority. It is a long road to the pro tour. I would love to give it a shot.”