An Internal Fire
For tennis captain Shkodnik, dreams of professional career are motivation
Published: Thursday, February 20, 2014
Updated: Thursday, February 20, 2014 21:02
Yevgeniy Jason Shkodnik knew what he wanted.
As an 11-year-old at the Gordon Kent’s New England Tennis Camp in Connecticut, he fell in love with the sport. The quick lateral movements, the demand of split-second reaction time, the culture – he wanted to be part of it all.
Many 11-year-olds dream of pursuing a career in professional sports. Some write their goal down on a piece of paper, some tell their parents.
On that fateful day, in an instant, like a tennis ball meets the chalk line on a scorching serve, Shkodnik felt a fire lit in his heart.
It was his new dream. He knew what he wanted. He wanted to be a professional tennis player.
Among the roughly 30,000 students who attend the University at Buffalo, it’s tough to stand out. But it’s not hard to find Shkodnik in a crowd of people.
Down the middle of his back, a bushel of dreads flows freely.
He has grown the dreadlocks for seven years, and they have become one of his defining characteristics. The strands of hair range from 12-18 inches. That’s about the length of 4.5 pens.
“We’ve been in a four-year wrestling match in terms of him getting it cut. I feel like he’ll be faster,” said UB men’s tennis coach Lee Nickell. “We’ve toyed with the idea of doing the thing that they do in Jackass where they carry the razor behind.”
But the hairstyle is part of who Shkodnik is.
“We’ve battled with that for quite some time,” said Shkodnik’s mother, Maya. “We can’t force him to cut it. Now he’s almost 23 and I can’t do anything about it.”
He is an athlete and young man who stands out. His hairstyle is symbolic of that.
It’s a February afternoon. With snow coming down in Buffalo and frigid temperatures forcing practices inside, the UB men’s tennis team files into Miller Tennis Center in Williamsville to practice. The players are preparing for a match against Marist, a strong opponent.
The team breaks after a brief meeting. Out of the circle, the 6-foot Shkodnik emerges.
He takes his position on the court and prepares to receive a serve.
Shkodnik reacts quickly. He moves laterally, winds up and swings his racket with so much torque the tennis ball looks like a neon green Indy car hitting its top speed and racing to the finish line.
The sound of rubber meeting nylon and titanium caroms loudly off the walls. A barbaric grunt follows.
The tennis environment was one thing that attracted Shkodnik to Buffalo. When Nickell recruited him, UB was coming off a successful 2010 season in which the Bulls won the Mid-American Conference regular season championship before advancing to their first-ever MAC title game.
Nickell saw Shkodnik’s athleticism and knew he was full of potential, though he was a somewhat raw product in need of development. But there was one thing that made Nickell’s recruiting decision easy: Shkodnik’s mentality.
“When I first started talking to ‘Yev,’ he communicated well, which I liked,” Nickell said. “And he was under the radar a bit. When we got him up here on a visit and we got to know him, I saw potential in him not just tennis wise but as a leader as well.”
Shkodnik had been developing as an athlete and as a leader since his days at the Gordon Kent camp in Connecticut. When he returned home from the camp, Shkodnik told his mother that he wanted to train and improve.
“He found some tennis rackets and he called [renowned tennis coach and former world No. 4 player] Brad Gilbert – a family friend – and I talked to Brad,” Maya said. “The first time we went to San Francisco for a consultation, he saw [Shkodnik] for a whole day, and he trained him for a full day. And he said that he had a lot of potential and we have to put him in a better environment, which would probably be a tennis academy.”
At the age of 12, Shkodnik and his mother decided he would head to the IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla., just a few miles outside Tampa.
“You can’t play up [in New York] year round,” Shkodnik said. “In Florida, you could play at any time. I felt it was the best opportunity for me.”
Maya quit her job and flew out to Florida with Shkodnik for his first three weeks, and then she flew back home to be with his sister Elizabeth. The pattern continued, as Maya would fly back and forth over the course of six years to check up on Shkodnik.