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At 17, Graham is a newcomer to the junior ranks

By Sandra Harwitt
Tuesday, September 08, 2015

There’s no point in asking about 17-year-old Alexa Graham around the international junior circuit. No one will have much information to impart.

That’s because the vivacious Graham, who in typical New Yorker fashion talks as fast as she texts, is taking an atypical path in the world of tennis.

Graham has no junior world ranking, an outgrowth of the fact that this US Open junior girls’ competition is only the second international-level tournament she’s ever played. The first took place at a Coral Gables, Fla., tournament in the spring of 2014 where she reached the semifinals.

“I’m playing mostly pro tournaments,” said the WTA’s 534th-ranked Graham, who remains an amateur. “Tennis is a very expensive sport, and my parents and coach felt it was more worth the money to work on my professional ranking, which will get me more than getting a junior ranking that would expire when I’m 18.”

Playing in the US Open, her first Grand Slam junior event, courtesy of a wild card, the Long Island native made good on the gift by beating Katarina Zavatska of Ukraine, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, in the first round.

“I’m very thankful for the wild card,” she said. “This has been great. You know, win or lose, this has been the best experience, being here.”

Although the juniors isn’t usually her thing, it was clear she viewed posting a first-round win on Monday as a future special memory. Graham, who grew up in nearby Garden City, N.Y., has an affinity for the US Open having frequently attended as a spectator growing up.

“Oh my God, it’s so exciting,” said Graham, flashing a big grin. “I’ve come here every year growing up since I started playing, so it’s really exciting.

Her mom, Debbie Graham, which she clarifies isn’t the former tennis pro Debbie Graham, is an unemployed teacher. Dad, Bill, is “retired FDNY” – that’s Fire Department of New York – and now as a certified public accountant who operates an accounting firm.

“He was at 9-11,” said Graham, clearly proud that her dad was one of the responders following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center site. “He was there, at the Twin Towers. It was my first day of preschool and he was supposed to drop me off, but obviously the situation granted otherwise. He went to the city and my grandma took me to preschool that day. He’s told me stories. He wasn’t there as early as others, but he was in the ruins of it, searching for people. He tells me what he can, but we don’t talk about it that much.”

Graham started playing tennis when she was around 7 or 8. She was supposed to be part of a shared introduction to the sport, but that’s not how it worked out.

“Garden City has a local bubble and I did a group there, except for I was the only one signed up for the group,” she said, laughing. “So once a week I actually had a short, maybe half-hour private lesson. My parents wanted to put me into tennis because it was a sport I could do when I was older. I was playing lacrosse, soccer, I was doing it all, but tennis I could play when I was a lot older. They put me into golf, tennis and swimming. Swimming meets were at 6 in the morning, so that wasn’t going to work. Golf was too boring. So I loved tennis. I got to run around and hit a ball. It was fun and I stuck with it.”

She played on the Garden City High School tennis team her freshman year. She would’ve kept going with the high school gig for another year, but they wouldn’t allow her to compete for the team once she started doing online high school.

Graham currently plays out of the Robbie Wagner Tournament Training Center in Glen Cove, N.Y. Just entering her senior year of high school, she’s verbally committed to play for the University of North Carolina, but heading to school isn’t given.

“I’m doing so well right now that if I can get the financial support to go pro, then that’s the thing I’d love to do,” she said. “I have so many colleges near my house that I could always get an education and a degree. Playing professionally is something I’ve always wanted to do so I’d love to turn pro right out of high school.”

As for her thoughts after playing her first Grand Slam junior match? Let’s just say her eyes have been opened to the talent pool that exists in the international junior game.

“The levels are maybe even stronger here (than the lower level pros) in the first round because these are the most elite juniors in the world,” she admitted. “You just have to go out, you have to do what you train to do, and you have to play your best.”