Sujay Lama continues to build legacy after a decade with North Texas tennis

Sujay Lama continues to build legacy after a decade with North Texas tennis

Sujay Lama continues to build legacy after a decade with North Texas tennis
March 29
18:46 2017

On a dark, gloomy match day against the University of Arizona, a strong, energetic voice boomed past the grunts and popping of tennis balls at the Waranch Tennis Complex.

The roar was invigorating, providing its listeners on the courts with over two decades worth of coaching expertise and guiding them to a victory over the Wildcats.

Head coach Sujay Lama has been a fixture at North Texas for nearly 11 years, renowned among the tennis circles for his contagious energy and aura of positivity. During his tenure with the Mean Green, Lama has become the program’s all-time win leader, and led the team to three conference titles.

But his roots dig deeper than North Texas.

Humble beginnings

Lama was born in 1968 in the city of Kathmandu located within the country of Nepal. Growing up, Lama was heavily influenced by his father, who strayed away from the traditional mindset of the country. While most parents in Nepal pushed their children to excel solely in academics, Lama’s father encouraged his four children to pursue venues in music and athletics.

Lama and his eldest brother Raj, who currently works with him as a volunteer coach, took to playing tennis.

But in Nepal, the opportunities to succeed on the tennis court were limited by financial circumstances

“As a tennis player, [there were] very few opportunities,” Sujay said. “[There were] just six tennis courts in the entire city I lived. We had to queue to play for half an hour at a time.”

It wasn’t until Sujay was 15 years old that his tennis career took off and he decided he wanted to turn pro.

After Sujay finished the 10th grade, Raj brought Sujay with him to Germany where he was coaching. From then on, the constant, non-stop grind began.

“Between five and six [in the morning] we were ready,” Raj said. “From six to eight, six weeks every day, I trained him. That’s when he got the taste of working hard. I spent a lot of money and time because I was brutal, very intense on him. After ten months of intense training, [he was] top-50 in the world. He [even] qualified for junior Wimbledon.”

Decorated background

Unfortunately for Sujay, he never played in Wimbledon. Prior to the tournament, he had torn his meniscus in his knee.

Despite missing out on one of the world’s most decorated tennis tournaments, Sujay used the experience as a time for reflection.

“[It was] devastating,” Sujay said. “[I was] the first person in Nepal to qualify and have a chance to play in the greatest tournament in the world. Look down the road, it’s a blessing in disguise. Had that not happened I would not have gone back and finished the 11th and 12th grade. Had I not finished [high school] I would not have been in the US going to college here.”

At practice on Thursday, March 23 2017, Tennis Head Coach Sujay Lama (center right) pays attention to form as his players run through exercise drills. As a coach, Lama believes that work ethic is everything when training his players. Katie Jenkins

After the injury, Sujay continued his playing career at Luther College, a Division III private college in Iowa. At Luther, Sujay was a four-time IIAC singles champion, became a two-time All-American, set the school’s highest winning percentage for both singles and doubles, and in 2002 was inaugurated into the Luther hall of fame.

And while playing was always his passion, coaching wasn’t something Sujay had planned to get into.

Upon graduating from Luther, Sujay took a year off at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where he helped train some of their prospects. Eventually, after making a name for himself, Sujay was invited by Amanda Coetzer to travel with her to the Australian Open, which she eventually won.

It was there in the land down under that Sujay met legendary University of Florida women’s tennis coach Andy Brandi who offered him his first college coaching gig.

“We’re going up in the elevator in the same hotel and I look at him and say, ‘You’re the hotshot college coach Andy Brandi,'” Sujay said. “He started laughing and goes ‘I know you Sujay, I’ve seen you around.’ I said, ‘Hey, down the road I want to maybe be a college coach.’ He goes, ‘When you are ready, call me.’”

The rest is history.

Over the span of three seasons as an assistant coach in Florida, Sujay helped the Gators reach a record of 89-1 and capture two NCAA titles.

“He was a very, very hard-working person,” Brandi said. “People that work for me work a lot of long hours and we go way beyond our call of duty. Sujay never complained or never said anything about it. He really loved what he did. He did just a fantastic job.”

The Florida job eventually propelled Sujay to his first head coaching position at the University of Illinois beginning in 1998.

During his eight seasons with the Fighting Illini, Sujay guided the program to a 109-79 record, five appearances in the NCAA tournament, and an upset win over a No. 1 ranked Duke team in 2003.

“Good memories,” Sujay said. “But eventually it was time to move on for various different reasons.”

Putting Denton on the map

When Sujay arrived in Denton, he inherited a program that was at the bottom cellar in college tennis and had a roster that was barely able to compete.

”I had three healthy scholarship kids,” Sujay said. “The rest were walk-ons and a couple of them had surgeries and could not compete. We had to go on campus and recruit.”

During his first season at North Texas, Sujay witnessed his team lose 16 straight matches before they finally claimed their first and only win of the season. On paper, that season was horrendous. But to Sujay, it was a necessary step in the process of forming a team capable of contending for a conference title.

“That team knew they were going to set the tone for us,” Sujay said. “They were going to be the foundation for us.”

Still, Sujay had obstacles to overcome in building his team. Before Sujay, not many people had heard of North Texas. All year round 12-hour work days were spent searching around the world for players willing to buy into Sujay’s program.

Pretty soon, Sujay struck gold.

“We got lucky because one of the kids we signed was a girl that was top-100 in the world,” Sujay said. “When she chose us it was like a domino effect.”

That following season Sujay led Mean Green to its best record since the ’86-’87 season at 13-9.

Suddenly, recruiting didn’t seem as excruciating as before. Now, talented players like Alexandra Heczey and Maria Kononova are coming to Sujay asking for a spot on the team.

Today, the 47-year-old head coach is finishing what will be his fourth losing season at North Texas. Nevertheless, he is feeling as optimistic about the direction of his program as ever.

Sitting in the lobby that proudly carries memories of his past conference titles, Sujay points to his team outside as living proof of what he has been able to accomplish.

“Look at that for example.” Sujay interrupts. “I’m not even coaching out there. Look at those girls, how hard they’re working. That’s a great sign of what’s to come here in the next couple of weeks.

Featured image: At practice on Thursday, March 23, UNT tennis head coach Sujay Lama (center) observes his players as they run through drill exercises. As a philosophy for training great players, Lama says that those who are successful are passionate about the sport. Katie Jenkins

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Cesar Valdes

Cesar Valdes

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