Jason Shuler doesn’t show much emotion on the tennis court. His even-keeled demeanor is refreshing and helps him avoid getting overwhelmed by the highs and lows of a long match.
That’s why Scarsdale coach Jennifer Roane had no idea just how much pain her senior star, who had been dealing with injuries during the postseason, was in after a grueling three-set 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 loss to Stephan Gershfeld of Hewlett in the New York State singles semifinals.
Following the match, which was moved indoors due to rain on June 3, the second day of competition at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, Shuler wasn’t able to go upstairs to cool down. He laid on the floor in the hallway instead.
“Even though he looked so beat up after the match he never expressed any of it on the court in the match,” Roane said. “It’s so amazing how he had such composure. He bent over once or twice just to kind of massage his leg, but other than that you would never know he was in so much pain. The Hewlett coach asked at the end if he was OK after seeing him bend over a couple of times and I said, ‘I think he has a stress fracture.’ He was like, ‘What?’”
During the Section 1 finals two weeks earlier, which Shuler lost in three sets, he was also in pain due to shin splints, but this time was different.
“At Harrison I thought he had a cramp in the finals and I went to touch him and he goes, ‘Don’t touch my leg. Just don’t touch my leg,’” Roane said. “Yesterday, he really couldn’t move, so I got his parents and said I didn’t think he could play the next day.”
Shuler said later that night he didn’t expect to be able to play in the third-/fourth-place match the following morning, but would make a decision that day.
“I think this morning [Section 1 tennis coordinator] Quan [Huynh] and Jason’s mother had a little powwow and even his mom said he shouldn’t play,” Roane said. “He’s still a kid and if it gets any worse he might not be able to play in college.”
Shuler expressed his disappointment in the same laid-back way he deals with the ups and downs of a match — with poise — as he spent time the next day walking around the tennis center to stretch out his leg prior to watching the state finals, and Gershfeld and Section 1 champ Emil Grantcharov from New Rochelle, who are both friends of his, and the only two players to defeat him this season, not counting the forfeit that gave him fourth place in the state.
“I was trying to heal my shin and also train for this,” Shuler said of the two weeks leading up to states. “It’s tough to do both. For this tournament I was trying to play for myself, but also for my team. We had that tough loss for the section finals for the team, so I was trying to do well for them even if they couldn’t be part of it. Even though it’s individual you’re still playing for your school. I was just trying to make my school proud as well.”
The last time Shuler represented Scarsdale at the tennis center was his freshman year back in 2019 when he and then-junior Nikolay Sahakyan won the state doubles championship. At that time Shuler was just going with the flow and thrilled to have Sahakyan, who made the state finals the year before with then-senior Luke Smith, as a friend and mentor.
“It was a little déjà vu,” Shuler said. “It was interesting because when I came here last time I was a freshman. I didn’t really know anyone. It was also doubles, so I had Nikolay to look up to and he kind of did everything for me, but this time I was one of the oldest ones here. All the Section 1 kids we traveled with, I felt like I could help them emotionally and organizing stuff. I felt like I had a bigger role. When I was a freshman I was just trying to blend in with everyone else.”
Even though they had won the section title in 2019, which is meaningful as Section 1 is annually the best section in the state, Shuler didn’t have any expectations of winning the state, even as the No. 1 seed, and “didn’t even think we would win until the last point was played.” This year the expectations were high for singles, which made this year’s tournament a bit more stressful for Shuler in that way.
On the first day of competition outdoors, Shuler won 6-1, 6-0 and 6-1, 6-1 in the opening round and round of 16, respectively, not having to push his body as much in the early rounds.
“The first two rounds were definitely good,” he said. “I always get a little nervous at the start because you don’t know how you’re going to play. I was just trying to play my game. Toward the end of the first two matches I was starting to get my rhythm. I had a lot of pressure on myself to win, so if I lost it would have been weird. Very high expectations and very nervous. The very first game I played here I lost. I was down in the first round.”
The big question was what toll the first day might take on Shuler’s body as the competition would get tougher in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
“My shin felt a little sore and the rest of my body was a little sore and we were indoors,” Shuler said. “It’s tough when you’re serving. When you’re outdoors it’s just sky, but when you’re indoors it’s the ceiling. The courts definitely play much faster the way you have to play indoors to outdoors, which is very tough.”
Shuler won his quarterfinal match 6-3, 6-1. “I was definitely a little exhausted and the kid I played in the quarters made a lot of shots and made me run a lot,” he said. “I think that hurt my shin a little more because I had to run a lot in the early rounds. I definitely felt a little sore and by the semis I was definitely feeling it.”
Against Gershfeld, Shuler lost the first set 6-3, but was “definitely” feeling some discomfort. After taking some Advil he “felt pretty good” and won the second set 6-2. By the third set Shuler was back in a rhythm, but his body couldn’t match his game and he faded, losing 6-1.
“He kind of destroyed me in the third set,” Shuler said. “The start of the third set felt pretty good and about 2-1 I started feeling it. I tried to adjust. If I hit the ball harder, even if I missed, I might not have to move as much. That was my goal. He’s a very consistent and fast player, so I couldn’t really hit past him. He’d hit everything back. I couldn’t really do much towards the end.”
Shuler was the first Scarsdale boys singles player to make the state semifinals since Jon Fife in back-to-back years in 2005 and 2006, where he lost to the eventual state champion both times. In 2012, Austin Kaplan made the state quarterfinals, but rolled his ankle, taking away a potential chance to advance. Jonny Dorf had to retire in the round of 16 in 2015 due to cramping. Luke Smith, who suffered an array of injuries, made the round of 16 in 2016 and the quarterfinals in 2017.
Since the creation of the state tournament in 1982, Mark Warnken is the lone Raider to win in singles in 1994.
At first when Shuler talked to Roane about returning to the team this year he said he might have a few conflicts, which made her wary and she has the same rules for all her players as far as missing too many matches and/or practices. She discussed it with her captains, who talked to the team, and the message was clear — they wanted Shuler on their team. He ended up missing the first match of the season and that was it.
“Tennis is not an isolation sport, but when you are on the court as a singles player you are alone,” Roane said. “You’re doing your job out there, but he liked the team aspect. I don’t do tournaments, never had kids that did tournaments, so I don’t know if there’s some type of camaraderie when you show up for a USTA tournament, but for a high school team whether it was snacks on the bus, playing music, doing rap, I think he liked that part of the team that maybe he didn’t get being a tournament player.”
Shuler said he isn’t “mad” and doesn’t have “many regrets,” and was just going to enjoy his final day as a high school tennis player watching some great tennis as a spectator. But he did have time to reflect on just how special his freshman year was after COVID-19 took away his sophomore season, he was too focused on academics and outside tennis to play for his high school, and returning this year for one last season with his friends and teammates.
“I think as a freshman I never really fully understood how tough it was until I came back here now,” Shuler said. “I had played doubles, but watching all the doubles matches here they are really good. It makes me think I don’t know how we did that. That year I had Nikolay. He taught me a lot about how to play. I’m pretty grateful. I think I’m more grateful now seeing all these matches and the high level because I didn’t really quite understand it when I was so young. I feel like now I have a better understanding of how good everyone is here. It feels more special I was able to win as a freshman.”
Nothing is ever guaranteed, Shuler learned. He watched Sahakyan lose his senior season to the pandemic — and a chance to either repeat as champs or try his hand at singles — and then UConn cut its tennis program, leaving Sahakyan without a team to play for.
“You never really know what’s going to happen,” Shuler said. “My college program could get cut, too, and that could have been my last match ever yesterday. Even if I lost I’m still grateful to come here one last time because this could have been canceled again.”
After another trip to the doctor Shuler will make his plan of action — or rest — for the summer. While he wants to be ready for Williams College in the fall, he’d like to play in the clay and hardcourt nationals over the summer.
“In college it’s so grueling and I don’t want to keep getting injured,” he said. “I want to take care of my body this summer so I can be healthy for all of college.”
Shuler also grew up playing football, baseball and lacrosse, but when he was 12 he decided to choose between baseball and tennis when his tennis coach told him it would be tough to be good at both. “I really enjoyed tennis,” Shuler said. “Baseball is a team sport and I just enjoyed the individual aspect of tennis a lot. At that point around fifth grade I chose tennis as my main sport.”
Opposing coaches and even parents were constantly telling Roane how Shuler’s powerful strokes were “smooth as silk,” and she really marveled in how much he’d improved from being the “very quiet and reserved” freshman “phenom” a few years ago. “His tennis really spoke volumes,” she said.
“I’m hoping he had a good season, hoping he enjoyed being part of the team because we loved having him part of the team,” Roane added. “I’m sure he wanted a different outcome, but he really accomplished a lot in his years at Scarsdale.”
The Raiders also have a strong recent history of doubles teams at states. In 2005, Section 1 runners-up Spencer Svetcov and Alex Livingston made the round of 16. The next year Ben Ryan and Alex Parets did the same.
As sophomores, Ben Fife and Kaplan made the state finals in 2010 and the following year they won the section and state titles. As previously mentioned, Sahakyan and Smith were the section and state runners-up in 2018 and Shuler and Sahakyan won both titles in 2019.
Scarsdale’s Rudy Sayres and J.P. Rosenzweig won the first-ever state doubles title in 1982. In 1994, Jason Beckman and Jeff Weiser won the title.
Senior two-year captains Jason Gans and Adin Lamport had a “rollercoaster” ending to their season, according to Roane. After finishing fourth in the section in doubles, the team from Horace Greeley that placed third had to drop out of the tournament, moving the Raiders into the state spot. Then, a COVID-19 diagnosis forced Scarsdale to withdraw and for another team from Greeley that made the quarterfinals to take their place. (That team went on to take fourth in the state.)
Gans played second singles in the regular season, Lamport fourth singles. They helped the Raiders to a 12-3 record, a league title and a trip to the Section 1 team finals.
“They did very well in the regular season and were all-league and all-section,” Roane said. “They always had something positive to say to the team against a team that’s hard to beat like Horace Mann or a team that’s easy to beat there were always encouraging words. They did their best to include everyone on the team.”