The John McEnroe Tennis Academy (JMTA) at Sportime Randall’s Island has produced many top college players since its inception almost a decade ago, and the latest in that group is Sophie Graver.
The Auburn-bound New Jersey-native is the 19th-ranked player in the country and has quickly climbed up those rankings in the last couple of years since joining JMTA. Graver bounced around different clubs in New Jersey before continuing her training at JMTA, a decision that came after she met Lawrence Kleger, the Academy’s Co-Director of Tennis and one of the top coaches in the country.
“When I was 16, I traveled to Zonals. Lawrence Kleger was there and he saw me playing,” recalls Graver, who started playing tennis around seven-years-old when one of her older sisters began teaching her. “At the time, I wasn’t enrolled in an academy, so I started training at the JMTA.
Coming here not only helped my tennis, but it also helped me grow up. I was immature. Lawrence helped me so much because he doesn’t take any of that; if you do act out, you are done for the day. I needed that and now my head is on straight.”
Graver’s game has taken off since then. She had attended Wall High School in New Jersey for her freshman season, but decided to be homeschooled beginning in her sophomore year which allows her to train full-time with Kleger and the team of JMTA coaches at Randall’s Island.
“I never liked the idea of being homeschooled because it seemed so lonely,” said Graver. “But I wanted to devote more time to my tennis. At JMTA I get to train alongside a group of other kids who are homeschooled, so it’s been great.
The responsibility of being homeschooled has also helped my tennis because it forces me to be organized and independent. The coaches here are unbelievable, I’ve grown ten times as a person.”
When he began working with Graver, one of the main points of emphasis that Kleger knew he wanted to focus on was her attitude and mental toughness. More recently, the two have been working on more tactical aspects of the game to try and harness and better utilize the power that exists in her game.
“I am absolutely delighted with the progress Sophie has made over the last six months in not just her tennis, but in all aspects of her life,” said Kleger. “Six months ago we made some important adjustments to her basic strategy and tactical plan. We ratcheted up her fitness and started holding her to a very high standard of attitude and effort on and off the court. As a result, her tennis has improved and she has become the role model in our academy for what we expect from our student-athletes.”
Those adjustments have paid off as Graver quickly became one of the most highly-recruited players in the nation, by schools including Michigan, Florida, Texas Tech, Clemson and Vanderbilt.
She made the decision to continue her tennis career at Auburn University. Her introduction to the school came from Dan Cochrane, a coach at the JMTA and former standout at Auburn.
“Most of the schools I was looking at were either in the south or the west coast. It eventually came down to Florida and Auburn,” said Graver. “The Auburn coaches and team were awesome. Once I saw Auburn, I cancelled my visit to Florida, and texted Dan about how I couldn’t see myself anywhere else.”
Graver also gives a lot of credit to her parents, for their support both growing up and throughout the college recruitment process.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” she said. “I am so lucky. I could lose to anyone and they would still be proud. I could be playing my worst match ever and not be worried about getting yelled at. They are there for me no matter what. They wouldn’t comment on where I committed to school because they wanted me to decide for myself.”
In her own words, Graver considers herself an extroverted and optimistic person, and she has embraced the team events that she has been able to compete in. This makes her excited about the transition into college tennis and becoming part of a team.
“I am so excited for the team atmosphere,” said Graver. “I’ll be on Court 3 cheering for Court 1 and Court 6; you can’t do that in junior tennis. I love being able to encourage each other.”
Graver has come a long way both on and off the court in the last couple of years and the changes are evident. She has shot up the rankings and has become a more well-rounded individual. She will continue to grow both as a player and a person when she begins her time at Auburn, but will always remember and remain a part of her JMTA family.
“Now that I look back, it’s insane that I was maybe a 4-star recruit as a high school freshman and now I’m top 20 in the country,” said Graver. “This [JMTA] was the right environment for me. I am so close with everyone here. Having that solid support system has helped so much. When I’m at tournaments I get messages from the players and coaches here; when I committed everyone was so excited. It’s going to be a weird transition not seeing everyone all the time next year, but I know they will be with me in spirit.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org