DURHAM, N.C. Duke’s bounce-back season in women’s tennis could be attributed to several factors, primary among them the leadership of junior captain Melissa Mang and the sparkling performances of freshmen Ellah Nze and Reka Zsilinszka.
Robinson has bled Duke blue since her birth, which took place at Duke Hospital while her father, David, was doing his residency in eye surgery. As an undergrad, he was a standout member of the Blue Devil men’s tennis team from 1976-79.
Granson’s Duke roots don’t go back quite so far but are just as sturdy. She was preceded at the school by two older sisters, Katie and Jessica. Katie was a solid contributor to the women’s tennis team from 2000-03, helping it to three ACC championships and a final four berth her senior year. Jessica graduated last year but was not on the tennis team, her career cut short by pre-collegiate knee injuries.
With Granson and Robinson playing in the Nos. 5 and 6 slots in the singles lineup for most of the last two months, the Blue Devils finished second in the ACC regular season, reached the final of the ACC Tournament and won two matches to advance to Tulsa for the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, where the campaign ended last week. The ninth-seeded Blue Devils fell to eighth-seeded California 4-3 to close with a 20-5 record a major improvement over the uncharacteristic 12-10 showing of a year ago.
“It feels like a totally different team this year, to be honest with you,” said Granson, Duke’s hottest player at the end of the season. “Our chemistry is so much better. The freshmen have really helped change a lot of things. They’ve given us our confidence back because they are such good players. We all feel really good. We’re like a big family. It’s been amazing this year.”
Granson has felt like a part of the Duke tennis family since her middle school and high school days, when she would visit sister Katie on campus and watch her matches. The Blue Devils had a 31-1 ACC record during Katie’s career, and she won 32 singles matches for the 2003 team that posted a 30-3 record.
Katie went on to become the head women’s tennis coach at Yale for a couple of seasons, then married former Duke lacrosse star and assistant coach Kevin Cassese, who just finished his first year as the head lacrosse coach at Lehigh. Amanda lists her brother-in-law as her favorite athlete, but her sister, who now works in real estate, is not far behind. “Whenever I go home I play her, and she still kicks my butt. She’s just so good,” Amanda said.
“I came and watched her play at Duke as much as I could, and I loved watching her play. I feel like I’ve really had a connection with this team since she got here.
“I really looked up to my older sister. She definitely had a big influence on me choosing Duke because I saw how good of an experience she had here and how much she loved it. I just felt at home here from the very beginning.”
Granson looked at home on the court this year with her 17-7 singles record in dual matches. She won her last 10 consecutive singles bouts, including three in the ACC Tournament and three more in the NCAA Tournament.
When Duke was eliminated from the team chase in Tulsa, Granson stayed on to compete in the NCAA doubles tourney with partner Mang. They were seeded No. 8 in the 32-team field, thus earning All-America honors. They’ve been ranked as high as third in the country.
“I think I’m getting smarter as I get older,” Granson said of her successful finish. “You realize what works and what doesn’t work. I had a good season last year and started out slower this year. What’s really big for me is playing a ton of matches. I’m the type of person who does well when I’m match-tough, so by the end of the season, like now, I’m in a groove.”
“I think she has fed off her doubles play and that’s helped her singles,” added coach Jamie Ashworth. “She’s developing into one of the leaders on our team, too. Katie was a great leader for us and Amanda is definitely following in her footsteps in that way.”
After the first session of summer school, Granson will be following another tennis alum to Vietnam as part of a new three-week summer program called Coach For College. Developed by 2007 graduate Parker Goyer, the initiative involves athletes from Duke and UNC teaming up to conduct sports clinics and other educational programs for Vietnamese middle school children ages 11-15. Teammate Zsilinszka will also be participating.
“I won’t be playing as much tennis this summer because the Vietnam experience is too good to pass up,” Granson noted. “I’ll play as much as I can, but I know I’ll have the fall to get ready again for next season.”
After two seasons of up-and-down singles play, Robinson used last summer and the fall to get ready for this season, but she had trouble cracking the lineup until another player, Elizabeth Plotkin, went down with an injury on Feb. 24 in Duke’s 4-2 loss to second-ranked Northwestern.
Ashworth inserted Robinson at the No. 6 position for the next two matches Duke’s first two ACC contests and she won both in straight sets. She had her most eye-catching match shortly after spring break when she won against defending national champion Georgia Tech to help the Devils take a 4-3 decision. She went on to post an 8-3 mark in dual matches before dropping two contests in NCAA play.
“Jess has done a great job,” Ashworth said. “All Jess wanted was a chance. We kept telling her to work hard and she’d get a chance, and unfortunately her chance came because of an injury. But she came in and had a huge win against Georgia Tech that gave her confidence and also gave the rest of our team confidence knowing that she could go out against the best teams in the country and win at that spot.
“Last year was a struggle for her, but she kept working. She had a really good summer, and all she kept saying is that she just wanted a chance. She had to have faith that she would get an opportunity. She wouldn’t let herself slide in practice. She wouldn’t stop doing individual workouts. When she got the chance, she wanted to be able to take advantage of it.”
During her formative years, Robinson’s primary coach was her father, who won the ACC championship at No. 3 singles during his junior year of 1978. Jessi knows all about that because she’s heard the story “about a million times” about how her dad took the first half of the medical school admission test in the morning, won his ACC title match, then went back to complete his MCAT later in the day.
“It’s really a ridiculous story,” she laughed, recounting how her dad was asked during his medical school interview if he thought his MCAT scores should have been better. “He told them that story and he thinks that helped him get into Duke Med School,” she said. Dr. David Robinson is now an ophthalmologist in Delaware, where Jessi grew up.
“As a kid I wasn’t allowed to wear Carolina blue. The Duke blood ran in the family,” she said, noting that her mother Roberta was also in the Duke class of ’79. “I wanted to go there my whole life. When I was 16, I decided I didn’t want to just go to Duke without looking at everything, so I took a bunch of visits to different schools and Duke ended up being the place for me. I had an open mind, but I still ended up here.”
Ashworth is glad to have her and Granson as part of the lineup and as integral forces on a team where several individuals sacrificed for the good of the whole to help Duke return to form.
“The two of them know that traditionally you don’t win team matches at No. 1 singles,” he said. “We could have the best one in the country and we’ve had a lot of girls who have been ranked No. 1 but we haven’t won the NCAA Tournament. It’s great to have a number one player in the country, but you win matches with your depth. To have those two in those positions has been really good.”