The wind was often whipping and the temperature hung in the 20s during this past Christmas break when North Texas head coach Sujay Lama would drive by the Waranch Tennis Center and see a single player working out.
Some days Barbora Vykydalova would hammer serve after serve to the other side of an empty court. On others she would run sprints during vacation days she could have spent at home in the Czech Republic.
Vykydalova knew then that she had one last shot to add to her legacy at UNT and wanted to do everything she could to take advantage of the opportunity.
“It’s important to me to know that I helped advance the program,” Vykydalova said this week. “I want to be remembered when I leave. I want to be remembered as a good person and a good player who helped the team and the university.”
The senior can see the end of a great career coming and wants to finish out on the right note, beginning this week at the Sun Belt Conference tournament in Lafayette, La.
UNT will face the winner of a first-round match between Arkansas-Little Rock and Florida International at 8:30 a.m. Friday. The Mean Green is the No. 1 seed, ranked No. 60 nationally and heavily favored heading into the event.
No other team in the tournament is ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll that includes 75 teams.
“We still have to go out there and deliver,” Lama said. “But what we have had is consistent preparation, a tight-knit team and great leadership, with three seniors who have been through this.”
Vykydalova is among those seniors and has pretty much seen and experienced it all in her UNT career.
She arrived at UNT from Europe almost by chance. Carlos Casely, one of Lama’s friends in coaching, had just left his job at Florida International, one of UNT’s Sun Belt Conference rivals.
Lama asked Casely if he was recruiting any players who might fit in at UNT. Casely passed on Vykydalova’s e-mail address. Lama contacted Vykydalova, flew to the Czech Republic and arranged for her to join his team at the semester break.
“Bara hardly said a word the first few weeks she was here in January,” Lama said. “She went on and delivered her freshman year and showed that she is a tough kid mentally.”
Vykydalova adapted quickly after arriving at UNT and went on to win 11 singles matches as a freshman, including a key victory that helped the Mean Green rally from a 3-0 deficit to beat FIU 4-3 for its first Sun Belt Conference title in 2010.
That was the start of a solid run for Vykydalova and UNT, which also advanced to the NCAA tournament last season and is looking for back-to-back Sun Belt titles this week.
“We have gotten better every year,” Vykydalova said. “We were very good when I came, but now we are more motivated, want to improve and move up in the rankings. First we won conference, then we had bigger expectations every year. Now we want to get to the NCAAs and then do well there.”
Lama and his players say that Vykydalova has played a role in the progress UNT has made. She is a captain and helps set the tone for the team.
“She had the whole team here two weeks before school started and was the one who worked them out, gave them drills to do and led conditioning,” Lama said. “She has been an unbelievable captain and led by example. In my 19 years in coaching, she is the best captain I have had.”
That work paid off, not only for UNT as a team but Vykydalova individually.
Vykydalova suffered through a protracted slump as a junior and was out of UNT’s singles lineup by the end of the season. She has returned to form this year and will play No. 2 singles this week.
The way Vykydalova has improved this season inspired her teammates, including roommate Franziska Sprinkmeyer.
“Bara’s a good leader and as a captain is leading us to the right places,” Sprinkmeyer said. “She has a strong personality and is also very nice. She knows what she wants but doesn’t harm anyone else in getting it.”
Vykydalova got exactly what she wanted when she came to America — an opportunity to play, earn her degree and learn English.
“It was worth it to come to America,” Vykydalova. “I couldn’t speak English when I came here. I’m better now. That is something I never would have learned back home. I grew up so much as a person on and off the court. I changed a lot.”
Vykydalova also found a home at UNT and made more than a few memories along the way. Laughing and joking with teammates is what she will remember most, along with playing key roles in UNT winning its first Sun Belt title three years ago and another last season.
Vykydalova’s goal now is to add to her legacy.
That goal led Vykydalova to a cold and icy court over and over again last winter and motivated her to organize preseason workouts.
It’s also what motivated her to become the leader UNT will lean on this week.
“The way she worked set the tone,” Lama said. “We have four freshman this year. They don’t know any better. They think that’s the standard.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.