After finishing second in the Illinois High School Association state singles tennis tournament as a junior, Anastasia Goncharova’s plan wasn’t necessarily to come back and try high school tennis again.
But a physical education class changed Goncharova’s plan last March and sent her on a different path.
The hard-hitting left-handed ETHS senior, coming off three months of inaction following knee surgery, expects to be in the lineup Thursday when the Evanston girls tennis team opens the 2017 season with a dual meet at home versus Elk Grove.
It’s been a long road back for Goncharova, who dislocated her knee playing badminton in a PE class and also had extensive cartilage damage that required repair. Ironically, that mishap came just a couple of weeks after she had won a United States Tennis Association tournament that featured the top Midwestern players in her age group.
That victory sent Goncharova’s area ranking higher than ever, and the plan was for her to make an impression on college recruiters by playing a USTA-heavy schedule in the summer. That’s the route the quiet senior took before playing high school tennis for the first time last fall, and depending on her performance, she might have been able to secure a college scholarship based on summer play.
Now she’s shifted her focus to another successful high school season — if she’s 100 percent healthy.
“Right now I’m still getting back on my feet, but I’m feeling good and I’m almost fully recovered,” Goncharova said. “I finished my physical therapy two weeks ahead of the protocol, so I think that’s a good sign. I couldn’t walk without a limp for a long time and it was very painful when it first happened. I was very upset, because I knew it would put me away (on the sidelines) for the whole summer.
“To be honest, I really wasn’t planning to play high school this year because I had already lined up so many summer tournaments, and I would have had to travel all summer. I would have been ready for a rest in the fall. Tennis has always been a huge part of my life and it was a scary moment when I got hurt. It was really shocking for my whole family.”
From Goncharova’s point of view, the fact that she came within a couple of points of becoming the first Evanston girls tennis player to win a state title might not have been enough to find her back in a Wildkit uniform again this year.
After all, she tied the school record for victories in a single season (21-4 overall), was the first ETHS singles player to win a sectional championship, the first to claim a top 4 seed for the state tournament, and earned the highest state finish in school history.
Her epic 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (6) loss to Lyons Township sophomore Lahari Yelemanchili was so memorable that ESPN Classic should be calling any day now for a copy of that tape of the finals. Long-time observers of the IHSA tournament couldn’t remember a more fiercely-contested finale.
Those accomplishments will be hard for Goncharova to top this fall.
“Honestly, I think I’m over that last match,” she said. “But it did give me a little bit of heartbreak. I’ll use that to motivate myself this year. It was special for me playing for my school and the community last year, and I really enjoyed it. It felt special, and now even when I’m healthy it will be really, really hard to top last year.
“It’s really hard to win State and there are a lot of factors that go into it. I won’t put a lot of pressure on myself. It was a great experience, and I’d like to get there again.
“I learned a lot being away from tennis for three months this summer. I love the sport and I’m going to enjoy every moment I have on the court even more now. I realize that my injury could have been much worse, and I’m grateful to have a chance to keep playing. We’ll see what happens.”
“Anastasia is such a great athlete and she worked really hard to come back,” said Wildkit head coach Joyce Anderson, who welcomes back three of her top six players from a year ago. “Things may be different for her because of the injury, but I actually think it’s helped her appreciate the game that much more.
And she’s not worried about who’s SUPPOSED to win State this year. She knows she can, but she also knows on any given day, anything can happen. This year is just about playing her best and not worrying about anything else.
“I think we’re really going to be deep as a team this year. We have a lot of juniors who are pretty even (ability-wise) and the whole team has looked good in (preseason) practice.”
Goncharova and senior captain Lola Knight are expected to hold onto the top two singles slots after representing ETHS at the sectional at those same positions in 2016. Knight is the emotional glue for the squad, one of the reasons she was chosen for the captain spot.
“Lola is our best singles player, other than Anastasia, and she’s so smart and fast and has such a great attitude,” Anderson praised. “She’s a much better player this year and she won all of her challenge matches pretty decisively (in the preseason). She’s always been fit on the court, and she’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever had as a coach. She’s everything you want in a captain.”
Val Abushevich, a junior, figures to play at the No. 3 singles position if she can fight off a deep group of challengers.
Anderson plans to pair returning No. 1 doubles standout Margot Connor, a junior, with rising classmate Annie Hedges and thinks the duo has the potential to reach State at the end of the season.
Hedges has climbed the ladder from a No. 4 doubles slot last year and might be the most improved player on the 16-girl varsity roster.
“I think they’ll both have a really good chance to make it to State,” the coach said. “Annie’s always been really fit, but now she’s tennis fit and that’s given her more confidence on the court. She worked hard to improve her serve, and her return of serve. She was good for us last year, but she decided she wanted to be great, and she made that commitment over the winter and summer.
“We haven’t decided the 2-3-4 doubles yet because we still have some mixing and matching to do. I love coaching doubles and I just look for the best combinations. They all can play together, but I look at who’s aggressive at the net, who’s consistent from the baseline and I try to pair them so they complement each other.”
An added factor in the doubles lineup may be the fact that, besides Goncharova, five other hopefuls are lefties — senior Sofia Chaudruc, junior Lillian Magid, sophomore Sophia Demopoulos, junior Mary Hays, and junior Grace Tabet. Opponents might be faced with dilemmas in every doubles court if Anderson decides to employ lefty-righty duos on a consistent basis.
Also vying for playing time in singles and doubles are junior Leah Altman, sophomore Olympia Baldwin-Edwards, senior Sasha Ekman, junior Angie Flint, senior Olivia Lackey-Benson and junior Kate McClintock.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.