Diana Khodan’s journey from player to coach after injury

University of Miami graduate student and women's tennis coach, Diana Khodan speaks with former University of Miami women's tennis player Maya Tahan. Photo credit: Raul Maristany (Miami Athletics)

Diana Khodan played her last tennis match in a Miami uniform on April 1, 2022.

It was perhaps her best performance of the season — a resounding straight-sets victory — and came against Columbia in the first-ever collegiate tennis match at the Miami Open.

Four days later, Khodan fell during practice. The third-year sophomore ran to return a ball with her backhand, like she’d done so many times before.

But this time was different.

She slipped, shifted her entire body weight onto her right knee and felt immediate pain.

“I still remember that moment,” teammate Isabella Pfennig said. “I was playing next to her the last five minutes of practice. All of a sudden she goes down and starts screaming. I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’”

Teammates and coaches swarmed Khodan, whose knee was swollen. An MRI soon revealed the damage — a season-ending ACL injury. It was another blow to an already difficult past few months.

In February 2022, Russia invaded Khodan’s home country of Ukraine. Her family still lived there, and she worried her father and brother would go to war.

“If I’m on the team, I have to fight,” Khodan said of her mentality following the invasion. “Especially [because] I knew my people in Ukraine [were] fighting for freedom and everything, so I have to do the same here.”

Khodan refused to give up, even after tearing her ACL. She still wanted to be there for her teammates, so she decided to try something new — coaching.

“I still wanted to be involved,” Khodan said. “I still wanted with [my team] to go through all the ups and downs and try to do my best and give some of my experiences, my stories and how I started to new kids.”

Khodan didn’t want to coach at first, but she couldn’t deny she had all the qualifications. She started playing tennis at only 7 years old and was competing in International Tennis Federation tournaments at just 14.

When it was time to go to college, Khodan turned down offers from powerhouse schools like Florida, NC State and Texas to play for head coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews at Miami. But just three matches into her collegiate career, she tore cartilage in her left wrist that required season-ending surgery.

Diana Khodan celebrates after winning a point during her singles match versus Georgia Tech sophomore Ruth Marsh at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center on Feb. 25, 2022.
Diana Khodan celebrates after winning a point during her singles match versus Georgia Tech sophomore Ruth Marsh at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center on Feb. 25, 2022. Photo credit: Jared Lennon

Khodan returned as a second-year sophomore and solidified a spot in both singles and doubles by her third season in Coral Gables. She boasted a 19-9 singles record during the 2022 season before her ACL injury, which included a seven-match winning streak, and Miami ranked No. 6 in the country.

When Khodan went down, it seemed like the Hurricanes’ momentum had come to a screeching halt. Teammate Maya Tahan was now without her long-time doubles partner, and true freshman Tatyana Nikolenko had the tall task of filling that void.

Tahan and Khodan always loved playing together, and that chemistry translated to the court, where they peaked at No. 14 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association doubles rankings in 2021.

After her injury, Khodan immediately thought of Tahan.

“I was thinking most of all [about] doubles, about my partner and stuff because we were so close,” Khodan said. “She’s my best friend from the first day because we started together, and we basically went through everything together.”

Unable to take the court, Khodan still supported her team from the sideline, traveling to Indiana for Miami’s match against Notre Dame just three days after tearing her ACL. Nikolenko registered her first collegiate singles victory, but the Hurricanes weren’t able to beat the Fighting Irish.

Still, Khodan’s coaching career had begun, and she gained more experience during the rest of the season. Her reaction to one Miami victory left an impression on Pfennig.

“There’s this picture where she’s jumping,” Pfennig said. “She was not supposed to jump with her knee, but you could just see how happy she was. And you could be like, maybe she’s not as happy because that should be her playing, but I feel like that just said a lot about her.”

Khodan was upset, but she spoke with Yaroshuk-Tews about being a positive presence in front of her teammates. She wanted to show them that she was okay.

Khodan had surgery on April 25, 20 days after tearing her ACL, and it took nine months for her to fully recover. She joined the University of Miami women’s tennis staff as a student assistant coach in August 2022 — four months after her injury.

During her first season on staff, Khodan helped the Hurricanes to a 16-8 record and a NCAA Team Championship appearance. Miami finished the year ranked No. 16 in the country.

However, the transition from player to coach wasn’t always easy. Khodan had trouble developing a professional relationship with her former teammates, who were also her best friends.

Now with a year of coaching experience under her belt, Khodan feels much more confident. She always brings positive energy to the court, according to Pfennig, who has learned a lot from Khodan’s response to adversity.

“Sometimes I look at her and I’m like, ‘Wow,” Pfennig said. “There were so many things [that happened] in the span of three months, but she was still coming out here with a smile. So I feel like that’s just really taught me that there’s always something you can be happy about, and you have to make the best out of it.”

Currently a fifth-year senior, Khodan doesn’t know what the future will look like — back home in Ukraine, or in Coral Gables — but she hopes to keep coaching at Miami. Regardless of what happens, Khodan will stay positive. It’s what she’s been doing during her entire collegiate career.