By Carlos Toro
A Rider freshman found refuge from the problems that life served his way.
Tennis player Griffin Clark found salvation on the tennis courts after a potentially fatal situation: cancer.
Clark was diagnosed with eye cancer in high school and spent the vast majority of his teen years not playing sports or hanging with his friends as much as he would have liked.
Instead, he was getting treated, having surgeries, and undergoing chemotherapy. Today, vision in one of his eyes is still not 100 percent, but Clark has proven he can still compete.
The key to him getting through this difficult time was maintaining a positive mindset, which he said helped him tremendously. In the aftermath of his diagnosis, Clark struggled in his tennis game, and it would take him time before he could rebound and improve.
“When I first got diagnosed and I had surgery, which cut off vision in my eye for a while — about a year — it hurt my game a lot,” Clark said. “I kind of took a few steps back, and it took me awhile to get acclimated and get used to the depth perception. It got worse for a while, but it took me awhile to get back, and I think I’ve gotten even better since then.”
His journey from high school champion in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Division I college tennis player was not an easy one, but Clark’s play this season has already contributed to a more competitive university tennis program.
The 18 year old started this season as the Broncs’ No. 1, a position in college tennis reserved for the team’s ace, or best player. In his first singles game as a Bronc, he faced Wagner and was excited to have the opportunity to win his first match.
Unfortunately, he lost.
But Clark held his head up high and was proud of the performance he had.
“I played my first match at No. 1 against Wagner and their guy was really, really good, and I played one of the best matches I’ve ever had,” Clark said. “I lost, but I was in it the whole time and that gave me a lot of confidence even though I lost.”
The freshman understood that it was only the first step in his collegiate career and said he could only improve.
Clark has been playing the sport since he was 10 years old. At the time, he had already been playing a variety of other sports, but he said that when he saw tennis on TV one day, he wanted to play the sport immediately.
“I think when I was just 10, I tuned onto a tennis match one day and I had never played tennis ever,” Clark said. “I played football, basketball and baseball, but I turned on tennis one day and I fell in love with the sport.”
While many children would think of further playing in either of the three aforementioned sports over tennis, Clark was too into the game to go back to those other sports. He enjoyed everything about it and said he felt like he can play at his best while on the court.
“I guess I just felt more natural at tennis,” Clark said. “I liked everything about the game. I liked the individual aspect, but I also like the team aspect and so it has a little bit of both if you’re on a team in high school or in college. I chose tennis over the other sports just because I felt like I was better at it. I felt like I was more of a natural at it and can see myself playing it my entire life.”
His favorite tennis player is current No. 1 tennis player in the world Novak Djokovic and he compares his game to that of tennis legend Roger Federer.
“In the last year, my coach from back home and I had been working on an all-court game, so I kind of see myself as an all-court player, kind of like how Roger Federer is, or even Djokovic,” Clark said. “It’s just being able to have every single shot and being able to go from the baseline to the net so that I don’t have a weakness.”
Head Coach Doug Potkay also sees a lot of great qualities in Clark’s tennis game despite just being a freshman.
“It’s taken me awhile to figure him out because he’s a big guy and it doesn’t look like he moves very quickly, but that’s because he has great anticipation on the court,” Potkay said. “He has a very good serve and his biggest strength is his forehand. He has a good all-around game.”
Clark was recruited by Potkay and Clark said the program and Rider’s academics helped convince him to come to the school. Clark is a sports management and supply chain management double major.
“I attended this college showcase in Philadelphia and there were a bunch of college coaches there and [Potkay] came up to me in that showcase and ever since then, I had a pretty good interest from Rider,” Clark said.
In his young collegiate career, Clark has accomplished a number of things. He’s already won his first tennis singles and doubles match and competed at the Villanova Invitational earlier this year. Clark said that competing at a tournament like that and facing off against a large number of schools with competitive tennis programs really helped him progress.
“It was awesome,” Clark said. “There were a lot of schools there, a bunch of really good schools there. There was a lot of competition, but it was good. To be able to get a couple of wins there, it was a great experience for sure.”
Now his focus is on the court, where he is helping the Broncs get the tennis program back into contention. This year’s team has been competitive in most of its matches and Clark wants to help lead the team for the next few years.
He understands that the program is in a rebuilding process, but has stated that the program has good players and it is only a question of getting good recruits to come to Rider and build up the future of the program itself.
So far, 2016 carries hope for both men and women’s tennis. The men have been doing well this season, including having won at the Villanova Invitational and the women were on their first win streak since 2011 earlier in the season.
“I definitely would like to take a leadership [role] and try and make us a better team that can compete in every single match,” Clark said.
Potkay also believes that the young tennis player possesses a strong work ethic and says it translates well on the team.
“I see a lot of leadership qualities in him,” Potkay said. “He comes to every practice and works hard and that’s a sign of a leader.”
Clark said that he refuses to let his past define him, despite how tough it was. He believes that he is a stronger person for having gone through this ordeal and is now competing as one of the top tennis players in a Division I college tennis program.
“It was two or three years in which I was in and out of treatment and it was really hard,” Clark said. “Even through the latter stages of it, I’ve definitely become a better person, and gotten stronger mentally. In the long run, I think it’s good for me.”