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Princeton routs Columbia to earn NCAA bid and undefeated Ivy season

From Eddie_1891It was close early, but Princeton pulled away and ended up laying quite a beating on Columbia to claim sole possession of the Ivy League title and the resulting NCAA berth. The No. 59 Tigers (17-5 overall, 7-0 Ivy League) had already clinched at least a share of the championship, but the 6-1 win over the No. 37 Lions (16-4, 5-2) earned them their first NCAA berth in four years.

Friday’s match at Cornell offered Princeton a chance to clinch a shared of the league title, and the Tigers capitalized by easily defeating the Big Red (7-10, 0-7) with a 6-1 victory. The doubles point came courtesy of a pair of 8-3 wins at positions one and three. The singles matches took barely an hour as there was only one match that went to three sets, and a tiebreak was substituted for a real last set, as is often the case when the team outcome is already decided. Freshman Caroline Joyce won it 12-10 after losing and then winning by the same 6-3 score in the first two sets. Junior number one Lindsay Graff and freshman number two Alanna Wolff made particularly short work of their Cornellians, forfeiting just four games apiece their entire matches.

“It was one of those matches you have to go in and be focused for,” Graff said. “We were able to take care of business without much trouble.”

When Columbia swept Penn 6-0 the same day, the stage was set for a virtual playoff match.

“We weren’t nervous at all since we had clinched at least a share of the title. We were hyped up and energetic,” Graff said. “They had something to lose.”

That attitude was on full display from the get go. The doubles point was hotly contested, as Columbia’s 36th-ranked pair of Crystal Leung and Tina Jiang routed sophomore Emily Hahn and Joyce 8-1. Princeton evened it shortly thereafter with an 8-3 win on court three, and it came down to the leading duo of junior Lindsay Graff and freshman Alanna Wolff. Their opponent was the formidable pair of Bianca Sanon and Kanika Vaidya, 12th-ranked in the country and undefeated in the Ivy League. The Tigers fended off a fierce attack to hold serve and go up 4-2. This proved to be the breaking point for the Lions, as Graff and Wolff cruised the rest of the way to an 8-3 victory, the team point, and that all-important thing called momentum.

The Tigers huddled after the somewhat surprising doubles point and resolved to maintain the same energy and unity that has gotten them through the last nine matches unscathed. They ended up needing it. All but one of the first sets were won 7-5 or 7-6, but Princeton found itself on top of five. Freshman Dorothy Tang was the first to wrap up her match, 7-6, 6-1. Columbia’s Jiang fought back very well against sophomore Emily Hahn to earn a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory and give the Lions their first point. At that juncture, the match hung in the balance. Graff and freshman Sivan Krems were both up a set, but trading games in their second sets. Junior Katie Goepel had forced a third set at the sixth position and Sanon had kept the Lions alive by winning her second set against Wolff. Soon, Graff found herself serving for the match up 5-4 and Krems dueled with Leung in a tiebreaker. Then, in a matter of seconds, Krems won the tiebreaker, Graff closed out No. 121 Vaidya and the Tigers were Ivy League champions.

“I didn’t know I was the clincher,” Graff said. “Then all these people started rushing at me. It was an unparalleled experience in my college career.”

The Princeton faithful erupted and the players celebrated, but there was still tennis to be played. Goepel played a brilliant last couple sets to win 6-7, 6-0, 6-3 and make it 5-1. Wolff and Sanon were still locked in a fantastic match, with Wolff up a break in the third set. They traded breaks and then holds to make it 5-4 in Princeton’s favor. Both teams stood on their respective sides of court one, cheering as if this match would decide the team outcome. Wolff jumped out to a 30-15 lead and two points later she served for the match. Sanon played with all the vigor of a senior in her last singles match, but her forehand went a bit long and Wolff was able to put the cherry on top of a great day for Princeton tennis.

“At the beginning of the Ivy League season, and even towards the middle, we were individually-oriented,” said Graff. “The Yale match triggered a huge switch. Now each of us is fighting for the team. It carries you through the close sets and matches.”

With the win, the program, among Princeton’s first and best women’s teams, earned its 11th Ivy League crown and first since 2010. The Tigers now have two-and-a-half weeks to prepare for NCAA regionals. The selection show is at 5:30 p.m. on April 29 and will determine Princeton’s first round opponent and location. The individual selection show will take place 24 hours and 30 minutes later, at which time players like Graff and Wolff learn if they have made the singles or doubles draw.

“There’s no telling how far we can go. I truly believe we can win at every position against the best teams in the country,” said Graff.

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