Leading Syracuse to multiple NCAA tournaments has let Gabriela Knutson leave behind her childhood

first_img Published on May 5, 2019 at 10:34 pm Contact Andrew: [email protected] | @CraneAndrew Facebook Twitter Google+ Gabriela Knutson broke free from an embrace with her mother, Ilona, weaved through the security line at Václav Havel Airport Prague and disappeared into the terminal. There were no tears in their goodbye exchange, just a smile from both. Minutes before the start of her 14-hour trip to Syracuse for her freshman year, Knutson stared into the back of the seat in front of her, alone. The 18-year-old Knutson thought back to what she and Ilona had spent the last decade working toward, and that Air France flight to Paris brought to fruition: a tennis scholarship at a university in the U.S. It wouldn’t be easy — Knutson hadn’t been in a classroom since fifth grade. Sleeping in her car at tournaments combined with completing online work in between matches caused loneliness and depression in Knutson’s life. Her isolation from the traditional school setting, something that affected not only her personal life, but also tennis, was about to change.In each of the two years that followed, tears filled Knutson’s and Ilona’s eyes during their annual goodbye at the airport. Knutson was becoming the face of Syracuse’s tennis program, and Ilona couldn’t be there to see it. At Syracuse, she rediscovered what she had missed in the previous nine years — classmates, professors, team atmosphere — and etched her place into program history. “It was a little nerve-racking,” Knutson said, “But I knew I was going on to bigger and better things.”AdvertisementThis is placeholder textThe second most career wins in program history. Three NCAA tournament appearances, the only three in program history. And a top-five singles ranking, something no other SU player has come close to cracking. For the last four years, Knutson provided Syracuse with the program player it lacked for more than two decades. But, in the end, Knutson needed Syracuse more than it needed her.Kevin Camelo | Co-digital editor• • •Inside the Knutson family apartment connected to Dvur Kralove nad labem tenis, a Czech Republic tennis club, a small, triangular-shaped desk fills a divot in their small space. A television and two couches occupy the other three corners, but Knutson’s desk was her spot for her online work. “To stare into the wall all day and having your back to your whole family, just staring into that tiny corner, is really depressing,” Knutson said. “That was my thing for a while, staring at a wall.” When she was bored, Knutson would rotate her workspace to the dining room or, occasionally, the balcony. On that porch, she’d type with the tennis courts in her view, the clay boundaries that brought her to the Czech Republic when she was 12 years old.On them, Knutson dragged herself away from another passion she had a future in: skiing. Ilona, a ski coach, attached “little baby skis” to her daughter’s feet when she was 19 months old to see if she had the same World Cup potential that Ilona had decades before. By 12 years old, Knutson was one of the top skiers in the United States, becoming a “celebrity,” Ilona said. Everyone wanted to be like Knutson, the girl who skied in the morning, went to school and then played tennis in the afternoon.“If I raced averagely, I would win,” Knutson said. “If someone was even like a second behind me, I was like ‘What’s happening? Why is she so close?’”Corey Henry | Photo EditorBut an increased focus on tennis because of costly ski payments, and a move to the Czech Republic changed Knutson’s vision. At International Tennis Federation tournaments, other competitors would be “chilling” in between matches and Knutson would be the “loser” on her laptop, Knutson said. On the way, Knutson and Ilona would stop at Wi-Fi rest areas — such as McDonald’s — and download her work into open tabs.At Syracuse, many asked Knutson how she was so normal, given she hadn’t been in a classroom for almost a decade. Knutson admits she “overcompensated” for all the years without classmates. Even though SU wasn’t the school she wanted to attend, Knutson still took advantage. Her eyes had been set on UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Irvine and UC-Berkeley — SU wasn’t on her radar. Knutson didn’t meet the SAT subject test baselines for the UC schools, her independent study hurting her, she said. When Knutson came to Syracuse, she left behind her previous seven years. Knutson walked into her first match at SU at third singles and promptly won in straight sets.“You have so much time, and now, my time is dwindling,” Knutson said. “I think the first year was kind of a prelude to how my college career kind of was.”• • •Dina Hegab yanked Knutson’s head into her shoulder, seconds after Knutson had fired a serve that landed just inside the center service line. Her ace clinched Syracuse’s 4-3 win over then No. 3 Georgia Tech — the largest upset in program history. That match, and ultimately her first NCAA singles championship appearance at the season’s end, marked the end of a three-year trek to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s top that culminated in a peak at No. 4 in the nation.Knutson knew that last year’s spring semester would be her best, undertaking a new fitness routine that produced immediate results. That season, Knutson was the first SU singles All-American since 1995 and the leader of Syracuse’s highest-ranked team. “We wouldn’t be at where we are right now if it wasn’t because of a lot of things that [Knutson] does,” SU head coach Younes Limam said. “She always had the tennis skills to play at a very high level. It was just a matter of time.”Kevin Camelo | Co-digital editorLast month, Knutson committed to a postgraduate international scholarship as she continues her tennis career at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Starting in September, Knutson will play for the top singles roster and hit with one of the lower teams once a week, fulfilling the coaching portion of her full scholarship. “I’ve done my part here, done everything I could,” Knutson said. “I’ve worked my butt off and gave my all, and now it’s time to do that in a different place.”A week before Syracuse made its second-consecutive NCAA tournament, Knutson fiddled with her gold necklace inside the Skytop Tennis Courts and stared into the ground. As her Syracuse teammates finished their final volleys of this season’s first outdoor practice, Knutson bent down to grab her Gatorade water bottle before her fingers returned to the necklace.“What would I have done differently?” Knutson asked herself. “I actually thought about this the other day, and I’m like, I don’t know.”Her fingers tangled in the chain and she quickly unwrapped them. She thought back to stressing the small things, maybe the little spats with teammates aren’t important. Knutson had transformed herself from a heralded freshman to the program cornerstone and helped Syracuse turn from an ACC afterthought into a national competitor. At senior day, the public announcer bellowed: “She doesn’t even need an introduction.” For the last four years, she was the face of Syracuse tennis.Her fingers released the necklace and it fell back in place, resting on her orange pullover as she smiled. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.” Commentslast_img