A Student Tennis Player’s Very Big Night

Jack Mingjie Lin of the Columbia men’s tennis team played his idol at the New York Open

Tuesday night at Nassau Coliseum, February 12, was Jack Lin’s night.

His mom was supporting him quietly, sitting in the middle of a very vocal crowd. His role model was facing him across the net. On the court, Jack Mingjie Lin, a 19-year-old Canadian tennis player from Columbia University, was challenging Brayden Schnur, 23, at the New York Open in his first professional tournament, in what tennis fans call the main-draw.

Sally Yi, Lin’s mom, had traveled from Toronto to Long Island and sat next to the ever-cheering Columbia students. After Lin, a Markham, Ontario native, had earned his New York Open wild card—by winning a college invitational last November—he invited his mom to watch. No matter the results, he wanted to share the milestone with his biggest fan.

Though she had landed on Saturday night, Yi hadn’t really had a chance to talk to her son over the next couple of days, even though they were in the same apartment. “I am like a shadowing duck,” said Yi, who had cheered for her son in a Columbia home game against St. John’s University on Sunday and watched him practice on Monday and Tuesday. When Lin was preparing for exams and responding to emails in his apartment, she said, she watched him most of the time without saying a word. “I feel his eagerness and resolution to win, as well as workload at school, she said. “Really don’t want to burden him with extra pressure.”

Yi said she has envisioned Lin as a competitive player since Lin first touched a kid-size racquet and a sponge ball on a mini court at the age of seven. “Aside from the sleeping hours, it’s hard to get the racquet out of his hands, even at home,” she said.

Lin’s cheering crowd, His mom, Sally Yi, is at the bottom right corner (Wufei Yu/NYCityLens)

His tennis talent took off from that mini court. Outperforming his peers at the junior level, he started to compete nationwide at 11 and dominated the Under-14 Ontario Provincial Championships in both single and double events—at the age of 12. He continued to soar, and was selected into Canada’s junior national team to play worldwide.

Lin’s friends called him a “tennis fanatic” when he was little. He was engrossed in practicing shots, competing in front of audiences, and learning through observing senior players.

In 2016, he became one of the top 50 juniors in the world, and notched victories against players who are now pros, such as Denis Shapovalov, a 19-year-old Canadian currently ranked 25th in the world. Both of them played side-by-side for Canada in the Junior Davis Cup, the international team event in Under-16 tennis. More than 20 colleges, including Cornell, Harvard, and Stanford, were interested in recruiting Lin onto their varsity teams. But as one of the earliest schools to notice the rising youngster, Columbia stood out. Lin chose to further his athletic career at Columbia.

In 2015, the Lions’s best player, Winston Lin, also the best player in the Ivy League at his time, was the first to recommend Jack Mingjie Lin to his head coach, Bidyut Goswami. Winston had been unable to solve Jack, five years younger than him, in the final of a tournament in the Greater Toronto Area. After they shook hands at the net, Winston kindly extended an invitation to Jack—come and join the Lions. And Goswami began to keep an eye on him.

Yi still remembered that it was hard to find a time for her son and herself to meet Goswami and Howard Endelman, the assistant head coach, because Lin was frequently away. But once they figured out a time, the coaches drove some eight hours—leaving New York for Markham before sunrise—in order to meet the mother and son.  “We told him that college is a really good way to improve in tennis,” said Endelman, “while at the same time, if you are a very serious student, like Jack is, then you can also fulfill your goal academically.”

**

Facing off against Lin on Tuesday night was Brayden Schnur, who Lin had watched, followed, and looked up to.

“When I was under 12 or so and he was like 16, he was winning all these tournaments in Ontario. I was like, ‘this guy is someone I wish I can up against when I get older,’” said Lin. Both Schnur and Lin had the same coach and had trained in the same facility, Canada’s National Tennis Center, for four years. Schnur, who graduated from University of North Carolina, is playing his best tennis ever, approaching top 150 in the world.

“He laid out the sort of a path for me to follow,” Lin said. “I’m obviously a big fan of him. Canadians always want the Canadians to win.”

When 16-year-old Lin was playing qualifying of challenger events in Canada, Schnur, a junior in college, was getting wild cards for the main-draw events. Lin would stand on the sideline and try to learn from Schnur.

Lin finally got a chance to learn from the closest distance of all—at Nassau Coliseum on the Open’s College Night.

Lin, the only main-draw player without a professional ranking, had handed in a request to be excused from a chemistry lab class on Tuesday night in order to play. Schnur, who was trying to get his first tour-level win, had gone through two qualifying matches to confront Lin.

On the signature black court of the New York Open, Lin fended off Schnur’s powerful service and forehand, which he had studied years before, on the third game of the first set and attained the first point of the match. But then he wasted it with an unforced error from an aggressive backhand shot.

When Lin was down 1-4 in the first set, with the students—who had paid just $10 to get in on College Night—shouting his name, he tried to change strategy. He charged the net after he served, trying to block the return.  But Schnur was able to get the ball past him.

When it was 2-2 in the second set, Schnur suddenly picked up the pace in returning Lin’s second service. Lin fumbled by losing four straight points. It was then that he thought the match started slipping away from him. But he still had his crowd cheering, and Lin was wearing a smile for most of the time.

When waiting for Schnur to strike his 130 miles-per-hour serve in the penultimate game of the match, he still wore that smile. Schnur got three points from aces and defended his serving game.

6-1, 6-3.

Brayden Schnur and Jack Lin after the match. (Wufei Yu/NYCityLens)

Lin enjoyed the black court for 76 minutes, but eventually sent Schur to the next round of the tournament. The two bumped fists at the net. Lin congratulated his senior fellow national and exemplar for the win. Lin’s mom stood up and applauded. Lin was still smiling.

“He played a really good match. He played me tough and made me work on my serve,” said Schnur. He said he thought the match was much closer than the score had showed.

Schnur tweeted the following morning: “Great kid, gunna be a great player. First tour level win. I’ll remember this one.”

**

After the match, Yi finally had a long conversation with her son. On Wednesday night, she went back to Markham.

And on Wednesday night, Lin didn’t miss another chemistry class. About half an hour after Tuesday’s match, Lin had already sent an email to his chemistry professor, saying that he would be back the following day.

The match, he said, “made every little moment so special. Something I would never forget.” He said he knew he needed to work on what he had learned from Schnur this time—a good game plan beforehand and specific tactics from the first ball onward.

After taken the chemistry class, he left campus for the airport, to catch a plane to Chicago with his teammates. The Lions were set to play against Wake Forest University on Friday afternoon.

After a 76-minute peak, Jack Lin’s life went back to normal.

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