Feature: Kalmanovich returns to tennis with new mentality

Roy Kalmanovich never thought an injury that would keep him away from tennis for nearly a year would be the healthiest thing for him.

In roughly the last 15 months, the junior on the Illinois men’s tennis team has not only dealt with the physical toll of recovering from a devastating injury, but he also had to re-evaluate why he even loved the sport.

It all started after his sophomore year, which ended in the spring of 2009. Kalmanovich was coming off a very successful campaign in most people’s eyes that included 30 wins. Despite finishing the season ranked No. 45 nationally and getting as high as No. 23 in the rankings, he was unhappy. At that point, Kalmanovich made the decision to walk away from college tennis.

“I felt like I wasn’t helping the team enough and I didn’t really want to be here at the same time,” Kalmanovich said. “It didn’t make sense for me to stay and it was nothing personal against anyone.”

Kalmanovich decided the only option for him was to begin competing on the professional circuit, though he never took money, which would remove his amateur status. Transferring was not an option because he still loved the school and said he was dealing with issues that were interfering with tennis and school. He believed the only options he had were to play tennis or go to school, not do both.

But there was another problem already brewing for Kalmanovich: his knees were starting to give out on him. He knew he was not completely healthy but believed it wasn’t serious, so he kept playing.

During practice, Kalmanovich remembers his knees would just fail, and after tournaments it was hard to even stand. Just walking to his car at times would be a chore after playing.

As he continued to play, the knees continued to get worse as he developed severe patellar tendonitis and chronic swelling. By August of 2009, Kalmanovich had to take months off at a time, and by late winter in 2010, he decided to put tennis on hold because of the injury’s severity.

“I honestly didn’t think I was ever going to play again,” Kalmanovich said. “Doctors were telling me it was not going to go away, it will always be there.”

Several options were considered, the most notable of which is platelet-rich plasma therapy, where blood plasma highly concentrated with platelets is injected at the spot of the injury and heals bone and tissue. The procedure has worked on such professional tennis players as James Blake and Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 player in the world. But Kalmanovich felt that given the condition of his knees, it would be better to simply take time off.

Looking back, Kalmanovich says the injury that made him stop playing the game he had played since age 6 was the best thing that could have happened to him.

“Ironically, it was almost a bit of a relief,” he said. ”At that point in time I was so curious what it would feel like to have a normal life that I was almost a little bit excited to take some time off.”

He started to open up his mind — he began to grow mentally by meditating and reading many philosophical works.

“Everything became a lot easier to accept,” Kalmanovich said. “You start realizing, ‘Why would I be upset, it’s just a game.’ In that moment I started to realize why I probably wasn’t as successful as I could have been because competing your whole life kind of skews your thought process to an egotistical, competitive mode to where you’re so stuck in one paradigm, you can’t get out of it.”

Among other things, Kalmanovich started to read ideas published by Albert Einstein, books by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Quinn and many other pieces. His absence from playing the game allowed him to study such works for the first time.

Though he couldn’t play it, tennis still remained part of him. He said he also began to work by teaching people how to play at his local club. There Kalmanovich started to realize problems within his own game that he had never even realized because he never had the opportunity to “view tennis from that angle.”

“When I was here before, my serve was a major weakness,” Kalmanovich said. “When I stopped, I magically one day understood my serve and now I’m serving pretty well. And it’s the same thing with my backhand. It was very therapeutic to do that.”

At this time, Kalmanovich also learned that he had to make changes to his lifestyle to make his body strong from a physical standpoint. He altered his diet by cutting out red meat and dairy and substituted fruits, vegetables and chicken in their place.

Resting his body also allowed his body to recover from any other problems it could have been dealing with.

“During that time I got so much healthier that now my physical performance is at such a higher level than what it was at before,” Kalmanovich said. “Looking back, I feel a bit stupid for eating the way I did and not paying as much attention to my body.”

The knees got better over time despite the long odds. Being a native of the northeast, Framingham Mass., to be exact, Kalmanovich skied, which actually helped strengthen his patellar tendons through flexing his quadriceps.

Then in January, about a week before the semester started, Illinois head coach Brad Dancer gave him a call.

With the dual season about to begin, the Illinois lineup was shuffled at each spot besides the No. 1 singles position, a spot that has been filled by Dennis Nevolo all season when he’s been healthy. Having kept in touch with Kalmanovich regularly and seeing him grow, Dancer decided to invite him back on the team.

“Roy’s a very good person, he’s got a big heart, a strong empathetic side and everyone’s always recognized that,” Dancer said. “He’s matured in some ways, he had to go through some growth phases, he’s done that … You’ve seen this maturation process occur for him, and it’s been exciting, it has nothing to do with tennis. He’s in that process now, he continues to go through it and that’s a big part of what our program is about, it’s not just about forehands and backhands, it’s about trying to get young guys to make good decisions and keep growing in their lives.”

Kalmanovich had thoughts about getting back in shape to play again professionally, but instead he agreed to play for the program he once felt he couldn’t help.

“I didn’t leave on a note I would have liked to leave on,” Kalmanovich said. “I felt like it was an opportunity for me to improve myself because of something I didn’t do well enough when I was here before … I thought that me coming back to a structured place, I would regain my game quicker, get some school done.”

After he was cleared and named eligible to play, Kalmanovich returned to campus. Every moment of tennis was then spent trying to get back in shape, after having done basically nothing besides light hitting. A couple weeks later, after nearly a year away from the sport, Kalmanovich returned to collegiate tennis in a match against Denver in the ITA Kickoff Weekend.

Playing at the No. 5 singles position, Kalmanovich said ‘he felt he was nowhere near ready to play. Still, he was able to pick up a 6-2, 6-4 win over Fabio Biasion that night to start his comeback. The very next night against Notre Dame, he defeated Samuel Keeton in a come-from-behind 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory.

Since then, Kalmanovich has contributed throughout the Illini lineup by playing at the Nos. 2-5 singles positions and has accumulated a 13-7 record. He’s won four of his last five singles matches, all at the No. 2 spot. In doubles, an area he played sparingly his first two years, he’s most recently teamed up with Nevolo to jump out to a 4-3 record.

Today, Kalmanovich feels he is stronger both physically and mentally. He said he may not be hitting the ball as hard as he used to, but because he feels leaner, his movement is much better. Mentally, he feels like it is almost day and night from where he used to be.

“It almost seems like I’m a better tennis player now than I was before because before I was so close-minded about tennis,” Kalmanovich said. “I didn’t really almost want to hear what Brad had to say. I was just so focused on walking on the court and beating whoever I was playing. I feel like I was competing with the wrong energy before.

“I play with a lot more appreciation now and a lot healthier perspective of tennis.”

In the weekend against Penn State and Ohio State in late March, Kalmanovich feels he turned a corner.

Playing against Ohio State’s Blaz Rola, currently ranked No. 6, he said he could start feeling his game again and felt like a different player from the beginning of the season, despite eventually falling in a third-set tiebreaker.

On and off the court, Kalmanovich’s return has also been helpful for his teammates, as he is always looking to help them improve.

“He’s so grounded, he always has good intentions in mind and is always looking to help people, so it’s been a lot of fun having him around,” Nevolo said. “He pushes me a lot more, his style is difficult for me to play against in practice. He’s real tough to play against and it’s made me so much better.”

With two matches remaining before the Big Ten Championships, which is then followed by the NCAA Championships, Kalmanovich is continuing to elevate his game. Once this season is over, he will be left with just one year of eligibility.

Should he continue to play tennis, the threat of an injury, whether severe patellar tendonitis or something else, continues to be a possibility. But Kalmanovich wants to be positive. He feels the negative energy he carried before was an injury in itself.

So he’ll continue to meditate, continue to read and continue to play tennis until he can’t. Right now, he’s just happy to be playing college tennis.

“I’m really thankful to Brad for trusting me again,” Kalmanovich said. “I’m just really happy to be back and part of the program again.”

Story via The Daily Illini

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