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Praise for 'Canes standout Coutelle is no backhanded compliment

 Nino Coutelle

By Ashley Marshall 

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As the University of Miami's opening pool match against defending national champion Auburn came down to the closing stages of the mixed doubles, Hurricanes junior Nino Coutelle made a number of shots straight out of a Nick Kyrgios highlight package.

He ripped an inside-out backhand down the line with his team trailing 4-3, and he showed both power and touch to serve and volley in the very next game. On the penultimate point of the match, Coutelle contorted his body for an overhead backhand smash, and moments he later dictated a rally from the baseline to give Miami a 6-4 doubles win and an overall 25-22 triumph.

What makes Miami's victory over Auburn even more notable is that Coutelle quit the sport for almost two years after developing a neurological disorder called focal dystonia, more commonly known as the "yips." Now, he hits every single shot as a backhand – that is, a backhand off both wings – and has his sights set on a Tennis On Campus national championship.

As a teenager, club tennis was never in the plans. But five years ago, Coutelle, a promising nationally ranked junior player, was playing a USTA 16s event in Florida when the disorder first presented. His right hand and arm started to spasm whenever he tried to serve, and his racquet would go flying out of his hand every time he went to hit a forehand. 

"I was very concerned,” said Coutelle, a chemistry pre-med student who was born in Paris but grew up in Sarasota, Fla. “I had no idea what was happening to my body or my mind." 

Doctors recommended everything from acupuncture and botox to electro-shock therapy. Neither seeing a sports psychologist nor undergoing hypnosis worked, and Coutelle eventually stopped playing tennis to focus on track instead. Within two years, he decided to give tennis another go.

"I loved tennis too much," Coutelle said. "I wanted to start playing again, so I began working hard. I got back with my coach and told him it was my passion and that I wanted to keep playing. So we worked on two backhands, a regular backhand on the left side and a left-handed slice backhand on the right side."

Coutelle spent two years learning how to serve left-handed and now he has the full range of shots in his arsenal, including both a one- and double-handed slice backhand on his old forehand wing and a range of slice and drive volleys from either flank at the net.

Those shots helped Miami start its Nationals campaign with a win, and now Coutelle and the club are focusing on a top rank in pool play with the hopes of advancing to the gold or silver bracket. Win or lose, he wouldn't be anywhere else this weekend.

"It's the best feeling," said Coutelle, whose mixed doubles triumph followed a 6-1 singles success against Auburn earlier in the day. "I dreamed about playing college tennis with a team, and even though I couldn't play varsity, club tennis is still really competitive and allows me to be with my friends."