Tennis

Gabriela Knutson had an unconventional path to success at Syracuse

Courtesy of Michael Okoniewski | SU Athletic Communications

Gabriella Knutson had to travel long distances and sleep in the woods as a youth, but has grown into a star for Syracuse.

Gabriela Knutson and her mom, Ilona, set out in their gray Volkswagen Passat without an exact destination in mind. They needed to drive more than 200 miles to Poland from the Czech Republic in June 2012 because Knutson would soon play in the Gdynia Cup tennis tournament. But, because of limited finances, the two did not book a hotel. So, as they usually did, the mother and her 15-year-old daughter tried to find a secluded place to park the car and set up camp in the woods.

“It was tricky where to park,” Ilona said. “We used to hide somewhere that nobody knows, but (this time) it did not work.”

They eventually found a suitable spot to camp, which is where the father of Knutson’s friend found the 15-year-old and her mother while taking a walk through the woods. He and his daughter had flown into the tournament and were staying at a nice hotel. The father returned to the hotel and “was telling everybody” about their situation, Ilona said. Later that summer, because everyone already knew, the two slept close to the tennis clubs.

Despite uncomfortable sleeping arrangements for six days, the Czech Republic native powered through the tournament. Knutson won doubles and lost in the semi-finals of singles play.

“It’s a hard mentality to get over,” she said. “You go into the match and are like ‘OK, my family put in so much effort,’ and I kind of felt that pressure on the court.”

Knutson has always been forced to find her way in an unconventional manner. The struggles extended to recruiting, but she’s found her way to Syracuse (1-2) and developed into one of its most dominant players in both singles and doubles. She finished her freshman year 12-5 with her doubles partner, Valeria Salazar, and the pair now rank in the Top 10 nationally. That success led to SU’s first-ever NCAA tournament bid in 2016.

“She was following the right way, imitating all my moves,” Ilona said. “I was taking care of the right technique from the very start.”

Ilona became her daughter’s primary coach at the age of 2. She trained her hard, and eventually Knutson was working out twice a day for two to three hours at a time. The first session included stretching, running and various tennis drills. The second workout in the afternoon was playing in a practice match.

At the age of 10, the National Tennis Centre in Prostějov, Czech Republic recruited her away from home. Ilona drove Knutson three hours to the academy every Monday, where her daughter stayed until Friday and Ilona returned to bring her home for the weekend. They did this for two weeks and, every third week, Knutson stayed at home.

“I played tennis for about three to four hours, and then an hour to fitness, and then say a physiotherapist session or a masseuse,” Knutson said. “That was basically my day.”

By her mid-teens, Ilona trusted Knutson to travel back and forth by train on her own. But after Knutson spent the fall and winter training, Ilona spent the summer and spring in the Passat driving her to tournaments.

The more Knutson traveled, the more she learned about the game and its top players. She began admiring the play of Maria Sharapova, the former women’s world No. 1. Knutson emulated Sharapova’s signature grunts and shouts while practicing with her mom.

“Everybody was looking at our court,” Ilona said. “We had a great practice, but I had to stop her.”

But Knutson did not stop. Years later, at Drumlins Country Club for Syracuse home matches, Knutson’s grunts echo through the building. She animatedly roots for her teammates and yells the occasional “Go Orange!”

Former SU head coach Luke Jensen actually discovered her at the Orange Bowl International Championship in 2013, a tennis tournament near Miami. That tournament, Knutson said, is important because there are a lot of college recruiters in attendance.

About a month later, Jensen began recruiting her on Facebook. He messaged her that her game stood out despite seeing her lose in the qualifying draw, and the two occasionally Skyped. She had never heard of Syracuse before, but decided to take a visit.

“Every time I watched her compete, she fought to the last swing,” Jensen said in a text to The Daily Orange. “I saw her finish matches that went her way and against her, but she was always the best competitor in the tournament. Her American fight was always evident with the firepower talent to win Grand Slams. She is a perfect fit for the tough-as-nails, blue-collar ‘Cuse mindset.”

Before she made it, however, Jensen resigned after members of his team raised concerns in December 2014 about his behavior.

That didn’t faze Knutson. She still planned to visit and continued talking with Younes Limam, SU’s new head coach. Knutson liked the campus and, like many players who spend childhoods traveling alone — including teammate Nicole Mitchell — finally joining a team seemed appealing.

She’s quickly made the best of the new team approach by developing a rapport with Salazar, her doubles partner.

“We just have similar game styles when it comes to doubles,” Salazar said on why the two have found success. “We are both pretty aggressive and help each other out up there. It just flows.”

Knutson plays a power-hitting game from the back-center of the court. Her aggressive approach enables a mixture of strong backhands and quick forehands to throw off her opponent. When that happens, she usually helps wrest control of the volley.

“Somehow she was more relaxed and her thinking, anticipating was better (in doubles) than in singles,” Ilona said. “She always wanted to win, but she was getting quite uptight and stressed which was causing mistakes. Sometimes she was losing her temper so much.”

Statistically, she’s better in singles matches than doubles — 77.3 to 70.6-win percentage in 2016 — but her doubles play remains among the best in the nation. The Jan. 4 Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll ranked the Knutson-Salazar doubles pairing as the nation’s 10th best.

Since Knutson is a sophomore, she and Salazar are entering just their second season together. But simply having that consistent partner in some ways symbolizes the shift in Knutson’s life from when she competed alone as a young teenager. It used to be just her and her mom traveling across Europe. Now, a team bus has replaced the family Passat.

“After so many years of playing alone,” Knutson said, “I love being on a team. You need that push. That extra push.”

Asst. Sports Editor Sam Fortier contributed reporting to this story

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