On Easter Sunday, the men’s tennis team experienced a miracle.
After losing in doubles, the Lions rallied back against Harvard to win five of the six singles matches, defeating the Crimson 5-2.While the Light Blue was excited by the overall win, one of the most impressive matches of the day was in the No. 1 spot, where freshman Winston Lin defeated Harvard senior Jonathan Pearlman in two sets, 6-1 and 6-2.
“He can officially walk on water,” said head coach Bid Goswami.
At 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds, Lin is not the most physically imposing opponent at first glance. But having won 15 consecutive matches in either the No. 1 or No. 2 singles spot, Lin—ranked No. 102 in the nation as of Monday—has proven himself a serious competitor.
Success on the tennis court is nothing new for the freshman from Williamsville, N.Y., but Lin has taken a unique path to his recent accomplishments.
Since Lin began playing tennis at age seven, his dad, Li Lin, has been his coach. When he began coaching his son, Li Lin had competed in a few United States Tennis Association club matches, but he had only been playing tennis for a few years.
“We basically—the two of us—went about it in our way,” Li Lin said. “If I said I knew what I was doing, that’s not the truth.”
Though most young players who are serious about tennis have a coach who has toured as a professional, Lin believes his father’s lack of experience allowed the father-son pair to develop a unique style that worked for them.
“It was frustrating at times ’cause he would just yell at me,” Lin said. “But it was good because we could talk at any time, and he knew me really well so he knew what I was thinking and he knew how to fix what was a problem.”
Lin’s father would watch tennis videos and match footage, and practice with his son for an hour each day at the local Miller Tennis Center, working slowly to build a solid foundation.
While much of his training happened on the court, Lin also improved his tennis through playing music.
Since he was five, Lin played classical piano, and throughout his youth he took part in various piano competitions. Although music competed with tennis for time, it had a vital role in Lin’s development as an athlete.
“Basically, the rhythm from the music helped me understand the rhythm of tennis,” Lin said. “I could feel the pace of the points and adjust.”
By age 11, Lin and his family began traveling to tournaments all across the nation, and it was not long before he was taking home first place trophies.
Lin won the USTA Eastern Junior Sectionals for 12s, 16s, and 18s, won the National Open 16s, and was ranked as high as No. 25 in the nation.
By the end of high school, there were no local players who could compete with Lin in a match. While this was frustrating, it forced Lin to practice his weakest shots while hitting with these other players, helping him to round out his game.
As his achievements grew in number, Lin caught Goswami’s eye several years before he even began the college recruiting process.
“I actually went to see someone else, and Winston was playing him and he beat him in the superbreaker,” Goswami said. “I thought he had unbelievable footwork. He has everything he needs—he has a great heart and his footwork is impeccable.”
When it came time for Lin to choose a university, he was torn between Harvard and Columbia, but ultimately, the Light Blue’s team atmosphere was the deciding factor.
“The guys on the team were much closer than any other team that I visited,” Lin said. “They welcomed me, and they showed that they wanted me more than any other team—same with the coaches.”
The camaraderie among the Light Blue players, especially among the six freshmen, continues to be one of Lin’s favorite aspects of being part of the team.
Classmate Ashok Narayana, the No. 4 singles player, said Lin—referred to as “Winnie” by teammates—is light-hearted and fun off the court, but when he practices and competes he is completely different.
“He’s one of the most professional guys I’ve ever met,” Narayana said. “Once he’s on the court he really focuses and doesn’t joke around. He makes us work harder, too, ’cause you don’t want to joke around with him.”
According to senior Haig Schneiderman, Lin’s partner in doubles, Lin’s serious mentality during matches is one of the primary reasons for the rising tennis star’s success.
“I think the thing that separates Winston is that in those pressure moments he refuses to miss,” Schneiderman said.
With a record of 17-1 this spring season, Lin is not only one of the best freshmen in the Ancient Eight, but one of the best players of any year.
Playing in the top half of the singles lineup, Lin has faced many upperclassmen this year, most of whom are considerably larger and stronger than him. But Lin sees this as more of an advantage than a weakness.
“I actually like it, ’cause I’m kind of a small guy compared to them so they look at me and think they’re going to kill me,” Lin said. “It gives me no pressure and gives them a lot of pressure, so I don’t mind it.”
According to Lin’s father, having no expectations and only focusing on the match at hand is the attitude that has allowed Lin to defeat so many opponents.
While Lin is focused on the challenges of the immediate future, namely winning this year’s Ivy League title, he does look forward to after college, when he hopes to tour as a professional player.
Those who have seen him compete believe that it is more than a mere possibility that Lin will one day compete as a professional.
“I think all he has to do is keep on improving everything a little bit, and he can go on the tour,” Goswami said. “If I was going to play him and I didn’t know him, I’d feel good—he’s a little guy. But he has a big heart and that you can’t teach.”