DALLAS (SMU) -Alex Skrypko had just come off of a knee injury, and was poised to start climbing the collegiate ranks once again. He had started his junior season at SMU ranked No. 36 in the country, and was regaining his form. Loaded with confidence, he qualified for the 2006 ITA National Indoors which is considered the most-elite of all collegiate tournaments, in Columbus, Ohio. His first-round opponent was second-seeded John Isner from Georgia. Skrypko won the first set, and nearly won the second, but ultimately fell in the match, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5). Skrypko, a native of Belarus, was disappointed that he could not come away with the victory against a player he had never even heard of.
Fast-forward six years, and both Isner and Skrypko are in elite international tennis company. Isner is the No. 10 men's player in the world, and Skrypko, a 2008 SMU graduate, is a member of Victoria Azarenka's coaching staff. Azarenka is No. 1 in the women's rankings. Skrypko is also Belarus' Fed Cup head coach, and helped his nation earn two medals at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, including a gold in mixed doubles by Azarenka and Max Mirnyi.
SMU Head Coach Carl Neufeld remembers Skrypko's beginnings as a freshman.
"He was 17 when he started at SMU," Neufeld says. "He was a very quiet, unassuming young man. He really evolved, not only as a player but as a person."
Skrypko, whose hometown prior to Dallas was Minsk, Belarus, was an incredible player before stepping foot in University Park.
"He was one of the top juniors in the world," Neufeld remembers. "He even had wins against Novak Djokovic as a junior."
Yes, that Djokovic. The man who waved the Serbian flag at the Olympic opening ceremony, has won five Grand Slams, and is fourth on the all-time ATP earnings list.
Skrypko's early career was like that of a budding tennis star. He represented Belarus in the 2005 Davis Cup, where he ended up playing in the semifinals against American Andy Roddick on ESPN2, losing 6-4, 6-2. Skrypko was a First Team All-Conference USA honoree his sophomore and junior years at SMU. He also earned All-Academic honors and received an economics degree, proving his intelligence both on and off the court. Neufeld recalls that Skrypko had a "world-class tennis mind."
Set back by an injury in the middle of his SMU career, Skrypko had to watch from the sidelines as his team fought on. The injury might have played a crucial role in Skrypko's future endeavors.
"He endured a knee injury, which in a way may have been a blessing for him," Neufeld said. "He learned great work ethic through rehab. It was part of his transformation. It gave him some perspective that now helps him as a coach."
Skrypko has taken what he learned under unfortunate circumstances at SMU with him globally as Belarus' Fed Cup coach and to help Azarenka, who first garnered the No. 1 ranking on Jan. 30. Azarenka won her first Grand Slam with Skrypko's help, the 2012 Australian Open in January. Azarenka defeated then-No. 4 Maria Sharapova in straight-sets, 6-3, 6-0, winning the last nine games of the match.
Neufeld recently saw Skrypko at the U.S. Open in New York City, where Azarenka is preparing to meet Sharapova Friday in the semifinals. Seeing one of his former players in such a prominent position is a proud sight for Neufeld.
"I'm proud of all our tennis alumni," Neufeld said. "But clearly Alex has got the highest-profile coaching position of anyone, and it reflects well on our program."
While hanging out on the practice courts of the U.S. Open, Neufeld and Skrypko ran into Djokovic, and the two Europeans chatted for about 15 minutes like old friends do. The respect that tennis' elite have for Skrypko is evidence enough of his achievements and accolades. His career certainly has reflected well on SMU.
"We're very proud of Alex and how he has represented SMU," Neufeld said. "Not only as a student, but as a top-professional tennis coach."