On April 29, the Tigers packed the Lenz tennis center lounge to learn the draw they would face for the NCAA tournament. Sixteen minutes of the live selection show passed, until they saw Princeton on the screen as the third to last team to appear in the field of 64. The Tigers drew the Sun Devils of Arizona State University in the first round, with the No. 2 overall seed Alabama almost certainly to come in the second round. Those three teams, along with Jackson State University, will convene in Tuscaloosa, Ala. this weekend to sort out who will head to the University of Georgia as a member of tennis’s Sweet 16.
The Tigers have not competed since April 20, but junior Lindsay Graff says the practice time has been helpful.
“We’re not worried about being rusty since we’ve had so much match play experience the last few months. It feels like we just played Columbia yesterday.”
Regarding the matchup with Arizona State, she said, “They haven’t been winning too many big matches. We’re the momentum team here. We’re not concerned with where anyone else is ranked at this point. We want to keep our confidence high going into match.”
Arizona State (18-7 overall, 5-5 Pac 12) has played a grueling schedule in the Pac-12 conference that boasts four California teams that all rank among the top 15 in the country. The No. 25 Sun Devils fell by a combined score of 24-3 against those schools, but undoubtedly gained valuable experience along the way. They played another 10 ranked squads throughout the season and picked up quality wins against current No. 41 Utah (4-2) and No. 28 Notre Dame (4-0). They faced No. 48 Yale at home on March 13 and earned the same 4-3 victory that Princeton did in its own match against the Bulldogs.
The No. 47 Tigers (18-5, 7-0 Ivy League) play in a much weaker conference, but still had their share of impressive victories. They started off the season 0-4 against ranked squads, but defeated three in league play during their current 10-match winning streak. Those victories came in a huge comeback against No. 48 Yale, a dominant 5-2 win over then-No. 46 Harvard and a shocking 6-1 drubbing of then-No. 37 Columbia. Few teams in the country have so thoroughly dominated their recent opponents as the Tigers have, and that ought to give them the confidence to stand up to anybody.
The Sun Devils feature a pair of ranked players at the top of their singles lineup in Stephanie Vlad and Desirae Krawczyk. No. 69 Vlad has played in the top spot all year and has faced the nation’s best players, including No. 2 Robin Anderson of UCLA and No. 3 Kristie Ahn of Stanford, both of whom she was able to steal a few games from. No. 37 Krawczyk has played in the spot and most recently turned in an impressive performance in the Pac-12 singles championships. In the first round, she defeated Kyle McPhillips of UCLA in straight sets, then kept the ball rolling with a win over Stanford’s No. 50 Taylor Davidson. In the quarterfinals, the tournament’s third seed and No. 19 in the country Anett Schutting of Cal barely fought her off with a 7-5 third set clincher.
Much like Arizona State, Princeton plays its highest-ranked player in the number two spot. Freshman Alanna Wolff is ranked No. 94 and has achieved a 12-3 record this spring en route to a second team All-Ivy selection. She is not, however, the best player on the squad. That honor goes quite clearly to Graff, who has played in the number one spot all season. Graff breezed through the Ivy League competition and was selected player of the year. However, due to the lack of quality players faced and the ITA’s twisted rating system, she has yet to receive the ranking she deserves. This also kept her out of the NCAA singles draw, as ITA rules state that each conference must send its highest rated player as its auto bid. That player, as it turned out, was Wolff, who will play in Athens, Ga. in a couple weeks.
“I feel like I’m playing really well,” Graff said. “I’m confident going into my match since I’ve got a good win streak going. It’s a good chance for me to get a sense as to how competitive I am.”
While Arizona State does not feature a ranked doubles squad, it still has a quality number two duo in Kassidy Jump and Joanna Smith. Jump and Smith came into the non-championship division of the Pac-12 doubles tournament unranked, but four upsets later emerged as champions. While they did not defeat another ranked squad in the bracket, they proved their mettle against players like USC’s Zoe Scandalis, who earned the runner up spot in the championship singles competition.
Although the ITA system was unkind to her in singles, Graff benefited from it greatly in doubles. She and Wolff started teaming up late in the spring and lost their first match against Yale. All it took was a single dominating performance, an 8-3 win over 12th ranked Sanon and Vaidya of Columbia, to go from unranked to No. 67.
“We’re ready for this one,” Graff reiterated at the end of her interview. “We haven’t had a team like this in my time here. We really think we can win at every position.”
Should Princeton manage a slight upset, it will almost certainly face Alabama (22-4, 12-1 SEC) on its home court. The Crimson Tide is ranked number two in the country and sports an accordingly daunting lineup. Doubles appear to be its specialty, as each of its three duos is ranked. Leading the way is the No. 4 pairing of Erin Routliffe and Maya Jansen. Strangely, though, Alabama lacks the top-notch firepower in its singles lineup that is usually characteristic of the nation’s best teams. No Crimson Tide players made the NCAA singles draw; its best player is ranked 65th. But there’s a reason the Tide won the SEC regular season crown. It features players ranked 77th, 93rd, 109th and 110th in the next four slots, a lineup as deep as any in the country. Nothing’s impossible, but an upset of Alabama would be among the biggest in NCAA history. They did, however, look startlingly mortal in a 4-0 shaming at the hands of No. 1 Georgia in the SEC tournament.
The match with Arizona State is at 2 p.m. on Friday, and the potential second round matchup would occur exactly 24 hours later.