Tennis

Anna Shkudun struggling in singles as she tries to rehab from November knee surgery

Codie Yan | Staff Photographer

Anna Shkudun is only 1-7 in singles, and a November knee surgery is why.

Not even a year after serving as Syracuse’s No. 1 singles option, qualifying for the NCAA tournament and finishing the season ranked 64th in the country, Anna Shkudun has struggled more than anyone expected.

In her debut singles match of the season against Brown — her first off a left knee surgery in November — Shkudun played No. 1 singles and lost 5-7, 0-6. Six matches later, Shkudun faced demotion to No. 2 singles with her 1-5 record.

“She’s in a tough spot obviously,” SU head coach Younes Limam said. “She’s playing high in the lineup and every time she steps on the court she’s going to play someone who is very good.”

Post-surgery rehab has capped Shkudun’s ability this season, and Limam has adjusted. Shkudun finds herself playing No. 3 singles now, most recently last Sunday against Florida State. The graduate student is close to a breakthrough, teammates and Limam said, and Syracuse (6-9, 3-5 Atlantic Coast) hopes it will come against North Carolina State (16-7, 5-5) this Friday. The team feels her confidence is almost back and that her body just needs to catch up.

“You understand your fitness level or your tennis level is not there yet,” Shkudun said. “You just keep trying to work hard and play more tennis.”

On-court experience remains crucial for Shkudun to return to her previous level of play, but the more she practices, the more problems her knee causes. Shkudun is probably “70 percent,” Limam said, but the final 30 percent has been the hardest to recover and likely keeps Shkudun in the loss column. Shkudun’s fiery demeanor still surfaces, but her play has been slow to follow.

Her knee slows her movement around the court. On rallies in which she previously crashed the net and crushed winners, the hobbled Shkudun plays returns from the baseline. Serving presents her only real advantage, but even that has failed her recently.

On Friday, leading Louisville’s Elle Stokes 12-11 in a super tiebreak, Shkudun served for match point. The surgically repaired joint diminished her normal service ability, but she’d made it work throughout the match. Now, amplified by the fatigue of a lengthy tiebreak, she struggled. Neither of her attempts landed inside the service box. Shkudun double-faulted, lost the lead, the next two points and the match.

“It’s also a little bit harder mentally when you’re playing shots you used to make,” Shkudun said, “and now you’re missing them.”

Close losses dent Shkudun’s confidence and remind her that simply returning to the court is not enough. When Shkudun makes errors, she often marches back to the baseline and mutters to herself in Ukrainian. Yet teammates and Limam see this as a natural progression in health and fitness.

“She’s definitely stepping up her game,” sophomore Gabriela Knutson said.

“We like what we’re seeing so far,” Limam said.

The conundrum now for Limam is where to play Shkudun. With Valeria Salazar’s season-ending surgery, SU has only eight players to fill six spots. Usually, sophomore Libi Mesh or junior Nicole Mitchell sat out alongside Olivia Messineo. Mesh has played doubles only three times and Mitchell recently returned from an illness. Sitting Shkudun means playing both Mesh and Mitchell, who have played all of their singles matches at No. 4 or lower.

Shkudun sits in a tough spot, because playing against other teams top players hasn’t afforded the opportunity of an easy, confidence-boosting win. Though Shkudun said her health steadily improves, the needed breakthrough still eludes her.

“That is the only thing that makes me honestly to feel better now,” Shkudun said. “I’m getting closer each match, even though I’m losing the match.”

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