JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Imani Graham didn’t plan on playing high school tennis this year. Good thing she did.
Graham, a junior at Creekside, gave the program its first overall tennis state champion and just the sixth from the First Coast area when she claimed the 3A crown on Friday.
Graham joined a very short list of area high school girls state champions, rolling to the overall singles title in Altamonte Springs with a 6-3, 7-6 (6) victory over Jensen Beach’s Ellie Schoppe. She’s just the second from St. Johns County (Nease's Sierra Poske in 2004 is the other) to win an overall singles state title.
“It’s been a whirlwind, some of the best memories that I’ve ever had,” she said. “I feel like I’m not winning it just for me, but for Creekside and my family and friends. It’s much bigger than anything else I’ve ever won.”
Graham wasn’t planning on even playing high school tennis this year, but was convinced to do so on the final day of tryouts. She went unbeaten throughout the season and kept going through the state tournament.
Creekside was eliminated as a team with a 4-3 loss to Naples Gulf Coast on Wednesday, giving Graham a rare day off and forcing her to pull a Friday double for the title. She beat Valeria Ray of Doral in the finals of the singles ghost draw, 4-6, 6-2, 10-3, to advance to the overall final against Schoppe.
“The level of competition, the level of players is so much higher [at state],” she said. “I had to fight for every point.”
Schoppe, the No. 1 seed in the individual singles draw, had cruised through the tournament with three straight set victories before meeting Graham in the overall finals.
The overall finals matches the top singles individual against the No. 1 player in the team competition who made it through the bracket. That was Graham.
“Best thing about Imani is, tennis she’s phenomenal, but she’s a wonderful person to be around,” said Knights coach Justin Vogel. “Great leadership skills. She thrived off the team atmosphere. Our team has benefitted from having her, and not just because of her tennis.”
The Knights had been close to an overall champion before.
In 2014, Creekside No.1 Marisa Ruiz claimed the singles title, but lost to Naples’ Nikola Kallenberg for the overall championship.
Girls state tennis champions from the First Coast
2019: Imani Graham (Creekside), Class 3A
2018: Kendall Nash (Atlantic Coast), Class 3A
2004: Sierra Poske (Nease), Class 2A
1988: Julie Exum (Bishop Kenny), Class 3A
1987: Rachel Viollet (Bolles), Class 2A
1956: Nancy Loop (Landon)