Early piano playing keys Elite Eight tennis success for Columbia’s Winston Lin

Winston Lin (Columbia University Athletics/Mike McLaughlin)

Before DVD or entertainment systems in minivans, parents controlled the only source of entertainment in a car — the radio.

For Columbia’s Winston Lin, that control had a profound impact on his successful tennis career.

“Growing up, my parents loved classical music,” said Lin, who upset fifth-seeded Sebastian Stiefelmeyer of Louisville 7-5, 6-4 to reach the NCAA Elite Eight in men’s singles. “It was on in the car all the time. Only when I went to middle school my friends talked about (Top 40) music and I had no idea what was going on.”

At the time Lin didn’t know Beyonce’, Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake and Fergie. He knew Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. Lin also knew other disciplines like karate and participated in several sports.

“They didn’t want me to be just a pure student,” Lin said of his parents. “They wanted me to be well-rounded. Music was the first thing that came to mind.”

Lin started playing piano when he was 5 and continued through high school. A distinguished pianist, he competed in several elite classical piano competitions.

“As a kid I wouldn’t say I loved playing the piano all the time,” said Lin. “You sit there and practice the same motion over and over again. It gets pretty repetitive some times, but I needed to focus and work on basics over and over again.”

Two years after taking up piano, Lin started playing tennis. Improving took constant repetition and commitment just like playing the piano.

“I don’t get bored on the court practicing,” said Lin. “I can do the same drills day after day. That comes from learning the piano at an early age.”

When Lin was recruited in 2011, he was ranked No. 1 in the USTA Eastern Boys 18s and was ranked as high as 25th in the nation as a senior. When he went to college, his expectations were moderate — play well, graduate and get a job. But after an incredible 21-1 mark and an undefeated record in league play, Lin was named the 2012 Ivy League rookie of year.

“So many people told me how much better I got in such a short amount of time,” Lin said. “They told me if I kept getting better you’d never know how far I could go.”

At the beginning of his sophomore year, Lin made a huge decision — he was going to pursue a career as a professional tennis player. What that meant was devoting one-third of his day, every day, to tennis. Three to four hours a day are spent on the courts practicing. One to two hours are spent off the court staying in shape.

“I’m in my dorm to do one thing: sleep,” said Lin. “Classes in the morning, practice and workouts in the afternoon and early evening, school work late into the night.”

Hollywood couldn’t script Lin’s defining moments last year. The Lions had never reached the NCAA regionals in tennis. With the score tied 3-3 against Vanderbilt in the second round, the outcome of Lin’s match against the 19th ranked player in the country would determine if Columbia advanced.

“We were all taking finals the night before and we were taking finals the next day,” said Lin. “Everyone was watching the match. I started cramping toward the end. It was super emotional when I pulled it out. I went to my coaches and ended up crying.”

Not for the first time, Lin ended on a winning note.

Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand is a freelance writer based in Ocala, Fla.