Tennis may not be a contact sport, but South Carolina redshirt sophomore Harrison O'Keefe proved that when you get knocked down, the best thing to do is dust yourself off and get back to work. O'Keefe was at the top of his game when a stress fracture in his foot derailed an outstanding freshman season last spring.
"One day it just started bothering me," O'Keefe recalled. "I kept practicing, and then after about a week, it really started to hurt, so I told the athletic trainer. We got an MRI, and it came back positive for a stress fracture. I couldn't put any weight on it so they made a decision to give it plenty of time to heal, and by the time it healed, the season was over."
That's not how it was supposed to happen. O'Keefe was on pace for one of the best freshman seasons in program history. He had posted a 20-8 singles record that included a 13-4 mark in dual matches and a 3-1 SEC slate. He paired with fellow freshman Thomas Mayronne in doubles, and the tandem climbed as high as No. 44 in the nation before his season-ending injury dropped them to No. 71 in the final rankings.
"Obviously I was bummed," O'Keefe recalled. "I was more bummed in that I thought I was letting everyone else down. I felt like I was a key part of last year's team, and so getting hurt put us in a tricky situation.
"I felt bad for Thomas because we both worked really hard, but with me getting hurt it may have ruined our chances of making the NCAA Tournament. So I felt bad for him in that I didn't single handedly ruin our chances, but I was a big factor in not making it."
"He was a young guy who was by-far our winningest point," said head coach Josh Goffi. "We knew we had a point on the board when he was out there. He started stepping up as a leader at that point. So it was a major blow to us."
O'Keefe wore a walking boot for several months, and not being able to develop his skills was frustrating, as was playing the role of spectator.
"I was out of it for about five months, not playing," O'Keefe said. "It was weird because I've never taken that long of a break without playing. I didn't know what to do. I was still working out, but not playing tennis was a big bummer because that's all I have ever done. It was weird having free time.
"At the beginning, it was a little frustrating because I was probably playing some of the best tennis I had ever played at the time before I got hurt. When I got out of the boot, I would see myself and how I was supposed to play, but I realized that wearing the boot and not really doing anything was frustrating."
While disappointed, he didn't spiral into despair, and the medical staff at South Carolina helped him stay positive and worked out a plan to get him back on track.
"The athletic training staff and all of the doctors did a really good job," O'Keefe said. "They gave me the timeline for when I could get out of the walking boot, how much time I needed to take after that, and gradually trying to play my way back into it. They gave me a really good timeline. So I stuck to it, and after that, I haven't had any problems since. Obviously they knew exactly what they were talking about."
As he worked on his rehabilitation, O'Keefe noted that he didn't feel distanced from the team despite not being able to contribute.
"It was business as usual," O'Keefe said. "It was a situation where nobody could control what had happened, and we just had to deal with it. Everybody treated me exactly the same, whether it was the players, coaches, or training staff. I still rode the stationary bike next to the courts each day. I would work hard, so I'd at least get a little bit of exercise and still be engaged in practice. Everybody was great."
"He had to watch not just as a fan or as a teammate, but as a student of the game and get better," Goffi said. "So I think he got a lot better actually. Even though he wasn't on the court, he was learning a lot."
Upon returning to action last fall, O'Keefe was anxious to regain his old form, but he did not feel the pressure to prove himself all over again. Even more important, he did not have any concerns about getting injured again.
"There was a little something in the back of my head where I thought about it," O'Keefe said. "I was worried moving to a couple of shots in those first few weeks when I was back. After about a month of full-on practices, I forgot about it and just started focusing on playing tennis and trying to improve again. I got back after a couple of months, and I haven't really looked back."
"He worked insanely hard away from here during the summer to get back to his level," Goffi said. "He started out in a lower draw in some fall tournaments, and he got to the finals of one draw and he just took off from there."
His confidence was renewed this fall, and O'Keefe felt like his game was back where it needed to be by the time he played in the ITA Regional and won three straight matches before falling in the quarterfinals. It kept getting better from there.
"I had a pretty good tournament at regionals, and then in the tournament down in Florida too," O'Keefe said. "That was the clay court tournament, where (teammate) Gabe (Friedrich) and I made the tournament finals. I kind of realized that I had found everything. The mental part of it and thinking about the injury was behind me, so I could just move forward and play."
That momentum carried over to the spring as O'Keefe was ranked No. 65 nationally entering the season, and he was named the Southeastern Conference Men's Tennis Player of the Week on Feb. 3 after picking up singles victories in South Carolina's wins over No. 39 Georgia Tech and The Citadel. He would later pick up a straight-set victory in his singles match against No. 14 South Florida.
"He is in a different role this season," Goffi said. "He has more responsibility, and he is learning and growing.
"He always raises his level of play to the occasion. He refuses to fail. We're going to settle him into a position in the weeks coming up, and he has the ability to be an All-SEC performer for sure."
"This spring, I just want the team to do really well," O'Keefe said. "I think Coach Goffi has made it clear to everybody what is expected. We all want the same goal and that's for every single one of us to do really well. As a team, we're just trying to make the NCAA tournament and see what happens there. Individually, I just need to try to help the team reach that goal."