How Gabriela Knutson worked to become a top singles player

first_imgOn Oct. 3, 2017, SU’s Gabriela Knutson split the first eight games with Texas Tech’s then-No. 8 Gabriela Talaba. But in the deciding points of both sets, Knutson dropped serve and missed an opportunity to lead. Knutson had flown across the country to Palm Desert, California, only to lose in the first round of a national tournament.On her flight back to Syracuse, Knutson thought deeply about the loss. She had always recognized fatigue sometimes set her back – those close to her had told her as much in the past. But this time, Knutson had let herself down. And she knew how to improve.So on that flight home, she set out to find out the missing link to her game: fitness.Starting in the fall, the Czech Republic native intensified her training regime. She shed pounds to be quicker, Knutson said, and the results soon followed. The junior has posted a 17-3 record this season and has peaked at No. 4 in the national rankings. Of her three loses, two of them came to opponents currently ranked above her.“I just wanted to compete in bigger situations for longer,” Knutson said, “and in the process I grew up and took on a new mindset.”AdvertisementThis is placeholder textIn high pressure moments, Knutson can sometimes get in her own head, she said. Her mother, Ilona, said her daughter has “choked matches away” since she was little. Despite immense potential at a young age, Knutson didn’t always have the right mindset going into close tennis matches, Ilona said. Knutson had all of the physical tools to be a top junior player in her country, Ilona said, but she would frustrate herself and ended up “blowing matches” occasionally.When she was 16, Knutson and her family drove 14 hours so she could compete against some of the best talent in Europe. Her family arrived in Switzerland the evening before the tournament. Upon arrival, Knutson trained for two hours in preparation. After it got dark, they slept in their four-door Volkswagen Passat instead of a hotel to save expenses. With only a few hours of rest, Knutson had a 9 a.m. match against a tennis prodigy from Australia.She stepped onto the court confidently and led early before falling apart. The match went into a third set tiebreak. In the deciding points, Knutson faltered and dropped the match. 28 hours of driving round trip led to a few hours of tennis and a first round singles defeat.Knutson shrugged it off. Her mother showed the frustration her daughter wouldn’t. Ilona told Knutson to make up an injury and forfeit her doubles match that was scheduled for later that afternoon. They immediately left the country and Ilona ripped into her daughter.“I was saying things that maybe I shouldn’t have said looking back,” Ilona said, “and Gabby kept saying she was sorry that she lost. We were both quite upset.”Knutson called the drive home “one of the worst feelings” she’s ever felt. During the ride, she thought about the time, money and effort she threw away.“Thinking back, I’m so ashamed,” Knutson said, “I didn’t work hard enough and I should have won. I still think about it a lot. ”Once at SU, the people surrounding Knutson still sought more from her. SU assistant athletics director for athletic performance, Will Hicks, remembered Knutson being the one of the first tennis players to introduce herself to him. She wanted perfection, Hicks said, but she wasn’t fully committed.The two didn’t spend much time together in Knutson’s first two seasons, until she developed soreness in her knees. The injury limited her movement on the court, so she turned to Hicks, the former strength and conditioning coach of SU football. Knutson has an “inside linebacker mentality,” Hicks said, because she brings a lot of power, energy and aggression to the court. She just didn’t always love the process.Kai Nguyen | Photo EditorKnutson recalled being a “middle of the pack” tennis player on SU in terms of conditioning last spring. During one team run, Knutson struggled to keep up with other players. After the outing, Hicks pulled the then-sophomore aside.“You need to be the number one,” Hicks said to Knutson, “If somebody random came in Manley (Field House) and watched you train, they should be like ‘Her, she’s the number one player on this team.’”During that same season, Knutson regressed from 17 singles wins as a freshman to 11. She started to question her game. In the summer, Knutson met up with her mother in California and began a period of time she called the “intense athletic mode” part of her life.Instead of playing three straight hours on courts, Knutson diversified her workouts. Between June and December 2017, she emphasized running, biking, and schoolwork with limited tennis action. Every time Knutson ran, she thought about her interaction with Hicks and how she wanted to lead her team.Still, the work hadn’t been enough. Her trip in October to the ITA National Fall Championships led to another first round exit. The loss motivated Knutson to rely on Hicks more. Instead of Hicks coming to Knutson, the latter initiated more frequent workouts. It led to more sprints and an improved overall fitness for Knutson.When she returned to playing tennis in January, something had changed.“I was getting to balls I would never get before,” Knutson said, “The first two weeks, it took me time to adjust. I was like ‘Why am I so quick on the court?’”Knutson opened this season with five consecutive wins, which led her to a No. 19 national ranking at the time. Against Brown on Feb. 24, Knutson hit a wall. Facing an unranked opponent, the junior dropped the first set, 2-6, and was down a break in the second. Down 4-5, Knutson faced match point twice.She won two deciding points and forced a second set tiebreaker. Despite being in a hole early, the SU junior won the tiebreak and forced a third set. While her opponent breathed heavily, Knutson remained calm and barely broke a sweat, she said. In past matches, the third set was always the hardest for her. This time, it was her best and led to the comeback victory.“A younger version of (Knutson) probably would have lost that match,” SU head coach Younes Limam said, “(That match) was when I saw that she did a lot of growing.”In just under seven months, Knutson has revamped her entire career. She’s now ranked 17 spots higher than Texas Tech’s Talaba. And her goals are starting to match the effort she exerts.“One part of me still fully doesn’t believe I’m top-five in the nation,” Knutson said, “and another part of me wonders why I’m not the (best).”Going into ACC and NCAA Championships, Knutson said she hasn’t hit her ceiling yet.  She wants more. And now, she knows how to get there. Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on April 24, 2018 at 10:26 pm Contact KJ: [email protected] | @KJEdelmanlast_img read more