An Amateur’s Hour – The New York Times
One recent morning, Jack Ming Jie Lin, a Columbia University tennis player, informed his chemistry professor that he needed to reschedule Tuesday night’s lab because he had another engagement.
“Look,” he said he told his professor, “I have a very important match Feb. 12 and I understand that we’re supposed to have lab session that Tuesday night, but unfortunately, I can’t make it that night.”
Instead of chemistry class, Lin, a 19-year-old sophomore, will be playing his first ATP Tour main-draw match, at the New York Open at Nassau Coliseum. Lin earned a wild card into the first round of the professional event by winning a college invitational in November at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Thirty-two players from 16 New York-area universities, including Army, Cornell, Princeton and St. John’s, competed in the tournament, where Lin beat Alafia Ayeni of Cornell, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 7-6 (5), in a final that lasted three and a half hours.
Lin’s appearance at the New York Open is a rare opportunity for an amateur to test himself against the pros.
“The Knicks can never play a team like St. John’s in a game that actually counts,” said Peter Lebedevs, the assistant tournament director for the New York Open. “In this, it is the pros playing a collegiate player, and it counts for both of them. For a kid like Jack, it’s an opportunity to get points and to get started on a potential pro career after his college or during the summer.”
A native of Markham, Ontario, Lin ended the fall at No. 4 in the collegiate doubles rankings with his playing partner, William Matheson, and is No. 40 in singles. He helped Columbia reach the round of 16 in the N.C.A.A. tournament last season after the Lions won the Ivy League for the fifth year in a row. He owns victories over the current pros Taylor Fritz of the United States and Denis Shapovalov of Canada, but those came in the junior ranks. Shapovalov is ranked No. 25 in the world, and Fritz No. 40.
“Obviously seeing them both develop into such big-time players, I don’t think I’m at their level yet with the results that they’ve been having,” said Lin, who grew up near Shapovalov, 19, in the Toronto suburbs. “I’m just more content with my own improvement over every month.”
The New York Open will feature many top American player, including John Isner, Frances Tiafoe, Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey. The former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt is playing doubles, as are Bob and Mike Bryan.
Lin will play a qualifier on Tuesday, and if he wins, he would face Johnson, ranked 34th. Some of Lin’s Columbia teammates want him to face a top player to see how he matches up.
“I want to watch Jack play against one of the high-caliber guys to see the difference between the ATP guys and the level in college,” said the junior Jackie Tang, who plays for the Hong Kong Davis Cup team in addition to competing for Columbia.
“I think he’ll do well because I don’t think the gap is that big. I think it’s just the experience and the knowledge of how to play certain points correctly.”
John McEnroe, who played a year at Stanford, has been a supporter of college tennis, pointing out that top-10 players like Isner and Kevin Anderson have had pro success at older ages after maturing while playing college tennis. Most recently, Danielle Collins, a two-time N.C.A.A. champion at Virginia, advanced to the semifinals of the Australian Open at 25.
Lin said: “Honestly, I think college tennis is the best it’s ever been. There are so many transitional players playing at such a high level.”
Lin’s mother, Sally Yi, is set to come from Toronto, and many of Lin’s coaches and teammates plan to root him on as well.
“I love these play-in formats where it’s not just arbitrarily granting a wild card to somebody,” said the former American star Andy Roddick, who kicked off the tournament on Saturday with an exhibition match against Jim Courier. “It’s a good story that somebody came in and earned it and this is what you get for your troubles.
“What’s better than being able to work your way into the matches that you dream about?”
Roddick joked that he would advise Lin not to take the prize money so that he can remain an amateur. Lin has not planned that far ahead.
“Obviously, playing the event’s not really about the prize money,” he said. “It’s just more about getting the opportunity to play in front of everybody on such a big stage and play against the top guys on the ATP level just to assess what my level is.”
At 5-foot-11, Lin is short for a sport where more than half of the men’s top-15 players are at least 6-4. But he is a shotmaker and is working on becoming more aggressive by coming to net more.
Lin, who hopes to someday be a top-100 player on the ATP Tour, considers himself part of the rising wave of Canadian players that includes Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime. He played for Canada’s Davis Cup team, but opted to come to the United States to focus on academics and tennis.
“In Canada, there are a lot of great universities there too, but they kind of lack the competition in tennis of playing in the States,” he said. “Playing N.C.A.A. tennis, it allows me to continue developing my game and obviously at the same time pursue my academic goals.”
Balancing the two sets of goals has been a battle. The men’s tennis team as a whole carries a 3.74 grade point average, and Lin does not want to let his teammates down.
“There’s a lot of things going on, but he’s managing,” said Bid Goswami, in his 37th season as the Columbia tennis coach. “He doesn’t want to be left behind in his studies. He had a really good last two semesters.”
As for that chemistry lab, Lin suggested to his professor that he move it to Wednesday night, but if he wins on Tuesday, he won’t be able to make that session, either. He’ll be back on the court playing his second-round match at the New York Open.
In fact, he would have several schedule conflicts to manage. The Columbia team is flying to Chicago on Wednesday for the Intercollegiate Tennis Association national championships, which begin Friday.
“If Jack wins his first match on Tuesday night and misses our flight to Chicago for national indoors,” the Columbia assistant Howard Endelman said, “that’s a good problem to have.”