Alexa Graham has been working her way up the ranks at the U.S. Open for years.
From the time she was 7 or 8, her parents would make the half-hour trip from Garden City to the National Tennis Center. They had grounds admission tickets, so Alexa didn't get to see too many big matches, she said, but that changed last year, when one of her tennis coaches got her courtside tickets to the women's semifinals.
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Monday morning, the 17-year-old was back to one of the smaller courts. Don't call it a downgrade, though -- not when Graham herself was the main attraction. She defeated Ukraine's Katarina Zavatska, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, to advance to the second round of the Juniors tournament.
"I had the crowd behind me and they got me more energetic and it was working in my favor,'' Graham said. "I didn't really do anything really technical. She was solid on both sides. I tried to attack her serve and I just stayed with it 'til the end and just didn't give up.''
Though an amateur, Graham mostly plays professional tournaments, a cost-effective way to improve her pro ranking (travel is costly, and juniors rankings evaporate when a player turns 18). This was only her second Juniors tournament, she was playing in front of a home crowd and, oh yeah, it's the U.S. Open. Please, she said, excuse her early-match jitters.
Graham was down 3-1 in the first set before blazing back and eventually dominating it down the stretch, winning that set without Zavatska scoring a single point in the final game. Graham repeated that performance in her third set, punctuating the sixth game with an ace to go up 4-2. She had six aces in her match, only two unforced errors, and won 70 percent of her break points.
"I started pretty shaky,'' she said. "I had all my friends, family, neighbors -- everyone was here -- but once you get locked into the match, that's really all you can focus on. Once I forgot where I was and just started playing, I found my game.''
Graham, who entered the Open as a wild card, still lives in Garden City and trains at Robbie Wagner's Tournament Training Center in Oyster Bay. Her parents never considered sending her to an out-of-state academy, and she even played high school tennis for a while. Graham won the Nassau County tournament while a freshman at Garden City (she is a senior finishing her studies online).
Her parents wanted her to play a sport with longevity, she said. Swimming matches started too early, she said, golf was too boring and . . . well, here she is, back at the U.S. Open, but in a completely different capacity than what she's used to.
"I didn't have anything special happen'' when she attended as a fan, she said. "I wasn't in many great places . . . Now I have something special.''