RANDOLPH _ There were double takes by players and fans when they saw Mountain Lakes second singles player Emily Eckert serving underhand in the Morris County Tournament.
Why, they wondered, would an accomplished player choose to serve that way in such an important competition?
Eckert, hampered by a minor tear in her rotator cuff, had little choice. The injury, although much improved since August, still affected the movement in her right arm, preventing her from moving it above shoulder level.
The discomfort persisted but so did Eckert, deciding on Tuesday that she'd take part in the MCT. On Sunday, Sept. 29, Eckert took top honors in her bracket, defeating Chatham freshman Sophia Fredriksson, the second seed, 6-3, 6-2, in the final.
"It's very nice to win," said Eckert, who ousted top-seeded and defending second singles champion Kaitlin Sanzone of Montville in the semifinals, 7-5, 6-2. "I'm really very surprised. I wasn't sure what to do. I asked myself 'Should I do this?' and 'Will I hurt myself again?'"
Eckert and Lakers coach Rob Elia came up with ways to deal with the injury. First on the list was using an underhanded serve.
"Emily had to be more selective about when to hit topspin forehands versus slicing," Elia said. "Her backhand is phenomenal so she got by with that."
In the semifinal against Sanzone, Eckert trailed, 4-1, in the opening set. She then won six of the next seven games and cruised through the second set.
"I was tight. I was unsure," Eckert said of the deficit. "I had to start over again. I focused on what I was doing and not what not what my opponent was doing."
There was a scare in the final as well. With Eckert ahead 3-1 in the second set, Fredriksson began crushing her serve. Rather than panicking, Eckert began hitting "weird slices" and stayed ahead.
In the first set of the final, Eckert hit perhaps her most impressive stroke, sending a backhand down the line to go up, 5-3.
Eckert suffered the injury right before the preseason. She hit an overhead at a practice after returning from a summer course at Brown University and felt a pop in her shoulder.
"I think I went too hard too soon," Eckert said. "I tried to ignore it. I kept saying I was fine."
From there, Eckert's season was in jeopardy. She benefited from physical therapy at Denville Medical & Sports Rehabilitation Center but didn't know if she'd be able to take part in the MCT. Only a week ago, Eckert, a finalist at second singles as a freshman and a semifinalist as a sophomore, had to retire from a match against Sanzone because of pain in her shoulder. Sanzone was in front, 3-0, when Eckert decided to sit out.
When the MCT was seeded, Eckert's record stood at 1-1. Despite her previous success, she wound up being seeded fifth.
"Being fifth was OK with me," Eckert said. "In a sense, it was very good. That made me the underdog. There was no pressure."
Eckert recorded wins over Villa Walsh's Sam Rollins (10-1), Parsippany's Jenny Kim (10-2) and Sanzone en route to the final.
Latest from Sandy Seegers