WESTERLY — Dakota Busch has probably hit that shot hundreds of times in her tennis career.
But this time, it did not go as planned. Far from it.
Busch, a sophomore at the University of Tampa, was playing Sarah Wardenburg of Nova Southeastern University on Feb. 17 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Nova Southeastern was ranked No. 5 in the country in Division II at the time.
"She was one of the toughest players I've ever played. Lots of slices and drop shots," said Busch, a four-time All-State tennis player at Westerly High.
The two were in a first-set tiebreaker when Wardenburg delivered another drop shot. Busch hustled to the net and was able to hit a return. Wardenburg countered with a lob.
Busch had to hurry back to get the ball and actually had to run past it to get into position for a return.
Then it happened.
When Busch hit the shot her body went one way and her knee the other. Never a good thing.
"It was the loudest popping noise I've ever heard and I felt it through my entire body," Busch said.
She was pretty sure what had happened.
"I thought I had broken my leg. But I got up and could use my leg. I got bandaged up and tried to play, but my entire kneecap shifted every time I landed on it," Busch said. "I had to retire."
Busch then had to endure a five-hour van ride back to Tampa. She limped around as best as she could when the team stopped at a rest area.
"It was really painful. It was one of the most painful things I've ever felt," Busch said.
The orthopedic doctor at Tampa determined she had dislocated her kneecap, but the MRI had yet to be taken. When she did get an MRI it instead revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. The ligament connects the thighbone to the shinbone.
Her season was over. She had surgery on March 5 in Tampa.
"It's not that common of an injury for tennis. I never enjoyed playing tennis as much as I was enjoying it this season. And it's the best tennis I've played," Busch said. "I had even fallen more in love with the game."
Busch had a 3-1 singles record and 2-3 mark in doubles. For her career, she is 10-4 in singles.
"The emotions have been pretty tough. It can be a very isolating injury. I have a great support group around me," Busch said. "But no one can really understand what you are going through and how you are feeling. It's one of the worst injuries you can endure.
"I've done a lot of self-reflecting about what kind of person I would be without tennis."
But Busch, who is at home in Westerly taking classes online, is far from done with the sport.
She is seven weeks out from her surgery and in the midst of rehab with Justin Gwaltney of Premiere Physical Therapy in Westerly.
"It's getting better. But I didn't realize how much this would kick my butt," Busch said. "I didn't realize I would have to relearn how to lift my leg and how to walk. I've never not played tennis and I've been playing since I was four years old. I won't be cleared to play competitive tennis for eight months."
Busch, who received a medical redshirt for this season, wears a compression sleeve on her knee. She can bike without pain. She hopes to do some light hitting at the 12-week mark post-surgery, provided she meets certain recovery benchmarks established by Gwaltney.
She hopes to be back to 100 percent next spring.
Busch was not with the team when it learned the coronavirus pandemic had ended the season.
"We only had one senior, but we were hoping to give her a big senior day," Busch said. "To have it end so abruptly makes you realize that you have to appreciate every moment you have."
Busch, who is a communications major and hopes to work as a broadcaster one day, was the unbeaten state singles champion her senior year in high school.
Her younger brother, Blake, is the No. 1 singles player for Westerly this season. But his final season ended before it ever started due to the pandemic, as spring sports have been canceled.
Busch said she could not imagine having her special senior year wiped out in such a way.
"It would have been horrible. I can't even imagine it. And it's possible seniors might even lose their first semester at college," Busch said. "I think it just makes you appreciate every moment you get to play, for yourself and for your school."