Barbora Vykydalova wasn’t quite sure of what to make of Sujay Lama and his unique approach to the mental side of tennis when she first arrived at North Texas four years ago.
Lama preaches about the importance of focusing and being mentally tough, just like most coaches do in any sport.
What makes Lama different is that he puts more emphasis on that aspect of the sport with some ideas that Vykydalova — and several other players on the team — thought were a little unusual at first.
Lama emphasizes creating a family atmosphere, focusing on the little things instead of winning and losing and — perhaps most unusual of all — transferring energy from one player to another during matches.
“When I first came here, I wondered what he was talking about with transference of energy, but when someone on the next court says, ‘Go Barby,’ or, ‘Let’s go green,’ it helps.”
Ask UNT’s players, and they will say it’s Lama — part tennis coach, part psychologist — who has transformed them into masters of performing in clutch situations, a trait that has helped them advance to the NCAA tournament for the third time in the last four years.
UNT (18-5) will face rival TCU at 9 a.m. today in an opening-round match of the four-team regional at Texas A&M.
UNT’s path to that regional and a No. 60 ranking in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll is full of points at which the impact of Lama’s strategy is evident.
Vykydalova came back from a set down to beat Tereza Brichacova 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in the decisive match in UNT’s upset win over No. 41 Minnesota in January. Less than a month later, Agustina Valenzuela beat Susan McRann 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 in the final match in UNT’s 4-3 win over No. 30 Arizona.
Kseniya Bardabush also came through in a do-or-die singles match, coming back from 5-2 down in the third set to beat Christiana Raymond at No. 1 singles 6-4, 2-6, 7-6. Bardabush’s win gave the Mean Green a 4-3 victory over Miami (Ohio).
UNT is 5-0 in matches that have been decided by a 4-3 score this season.
Performing consistently in key situations has been a hallmark of UNT’s program dating to 2010, when the Mean Green came back from a 3-0 deficit and won its first Sun Belt title with a win over Florida International. Catalina Cruz was down 5-1 in the third-set tiebreaker of the decisive match before coming back to win 6-1, 5-7, 7-6 (7). That victory helped start UNT’s run of success under Lama and establish the Mean Green’s history of coming through in key spots.
So, just what is UNT’s secret?
Lama says physical fitness is a part of it, but the mental side of the game is what matters most.
“I’m a psychologist, and having coached women for 22 years, that is where I’m so much better than I was in the beginning,” Lama said. “I used to concentrate on the physical part and winning. I understand now that I have already done the physical preparation part when we get to championship matches. At that point, it’s the mental part that matters most.”
Lama says he could talk all day about his philosophy that essentially breaks down into three parts — attention to detail, focusing on the process instead of the end result and transference of energy in a family environment.
Lama is a creature of habit, both in his personal life and with his team.
“We never change,” Lama said. “We have breakfast at the same time and our warm-up time is the same. If a match is at 11, we start stretching at 9:50, not 9:55 or 10. We start at 9:50 because I know how much time we need. There is no rushing. That affects your rhythm.”
Focus is even more important once UNT begins a match. Only Lama doesn’t want his players focusing on the outcome. He wants them to narrow their focus down to each point and each shot.
“I learned that in two years here,” Valentina Starkova said. “Nothing positive comes from just focusing on the result. You have to take it step by step.”
Lama believes that type of focus is what allows his players to handle pressure in big matches.
“How is pressure created? It’s all created by the players themselves,” Lama said. “Everything becomes bigger than it is. The team that stays calm, centered and in the present is going to have success.”
Starkova’s match in the Sun Belt final against Georgia State is perhaps the best example.
The senior won the first set 6-1 and was up 3-1 in the second set before losing four straight games. Lama came over to talk to Starkova at that point.
“He told me, ‘Val, you have to focus right here, right now in this moment,’” Starkova said.
Lama gave Starkova a simple pattern to follow.
“I locked into her eyes, brought her back to the present,” Lama said. “I told her to go crosscourt to the other girl’s backhand until she hits the ball in the middle of the court and then crack the forehand. At that point, all her focus was on that pattern and boom, what does she do? She wins four games in a row to win the match.”
UNT has gotten on several rolls like the one Starkova enjoyed against GSU throughout the season and credits them largely to the unity they have created as a team.
UNT’s roster is made up entirely of foreign players, who are far away from friends and family. Lama’s players rely on each other off the court because they have so much in common and try to carry that bond over to matches.
“Because we are really close as a team, when we get into very intense points and matches that can go either way, the unity we have makes a difference,” Ilona Serchenko said.
Lama could see the impact that strategy made when Serchenko and Starkova played in adjacent courts in the conference tournament.
“I told them to work together,” Lama said. “They both speak Russian and started talking. Now instead of thinking about being nervous or thinking about what will happen if they miss a ball, they are fighting together.”
UNT’s players have been in several tight spots throughout the year and learned to fight through them.
“I love those moments,” Lama said. “I go to my girls and tell them that this is what they should enjoy and work for. That is what you have to have. You have to love the moment.”
UNT’s players say they have come to love those moments. The way they have come through in them is why they are headed back to the NCAA tournament.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.