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Volunteer coach Raj Lama lending a hand, sharing experiences with Mean Green tennis

Volunteer coach Raj Lama lending a hand, sharing experiences with Mean Green tennis

Coach Raj lends a helping hand to North Texas Tennis player Laura Arciniegas. Raj spends quite some time on the court teaching the girls everything he has formally learned about the game that he loves. Kaitlyn St. Clair

Volunteer coach Raj Lama lending a hand, sharing experiences with Mean Green tennis
April 12
14:00 2017

Standing in the middle of the courts at the Waranch Tennis Complex, a seemingly frail, elderly man unloads a barrage of volleys to members of the North Texas tennis team, testing their reactionary abilities.

Each player eagerly awaits their opportunity to practice time with Raj Lama.

As he rains down a cascade of tennis balls to sophomore Tamuna Kutubidze, Lama vehemently serenades the sophomore with words of encouragement for every volley she recoils. The more Lama speaks, the harder it becomes for Kutubidze to contain her smile, and very soon she releases a grin.

The eldest brother of head coach Sujay Lama, Raj works for the team as a volunteer coach.

But his impact on the team is much greater than his title would indicate. When a player wants to gain additional coaching time, they set up private sessions with Raj.

“Last year my [eight-match win streak] was because of [Raj],” Kutubidze said. “As a freshman, I just wanted to do really well. I didn’t know how everything worked. So, I was just texting him all the time like, ‘Hey coach Raj, can we do extra?’”

Occasionally, Raj takes to playing volley matches with some players during practice. In these sessions, the 60-year-old is unable to chase down the incoming balls laterally. His motion is limited by a herniated disc he acquired through years of chronic back issues.

Still, Raj is able to easily return shots within his range. He no longer seems so fragile but appears to be rather nimble. His fluid footwork and adroit swing of the racquet serve as evidence of a man once capable of competing with some of the best tennis players in the world.

As an adolescent growing up in Nepal, Raj had trouble finding motivation to excel in tennis. During that time in Nepal tennis was nearly nonexistent.

The turning point in Raj’s tennis career occurred when he overheard a conversation between his mother and father.

“My dad was talking about me, how bad I was … and he was comparing me to my little sister who was already traveling all over Asia with the national table tennis team,” Lama said. “He was comparing me, how his little daughter was so much better. Then I said, ‘That’s it, I’m going to prove him wrong.’”

From then, Raj, just like his younger brother Sujay, went on to have an impressive playing career.

Raj became the Nepal National Champion from 1975 to 1980. His professional career was capitalized by winning the Dubai Open in 1980. After that, Raj moved to Germany where he played in a German league for a season before falling ill with a lung infection followed by hepatitis.

“When I went to see the lung specialist he gave me this medicine and it just affected my liver,” Lama said. “After 23 weeks [in the hospital] I didn’t know how my body looked. So when I saw myself, I looked like a zombie. I didn’t want to believe that I was going to die.”

Raj survived his nearly ill-fated ending and continued to pursue a professional playing career in tennis. Quickly, however, he realized those ambitions would be limited by the financial resources available for tennis players during that time, and he went on to pursue the next best thing – coaching.

Coming as no surprise, success followed Raj into his new role on the tennis court.

From coaching renowned WTA tour players to coaching in Germany for over two decades, Raj finally settled down in the United States where he spent a majority of his time as the Director of Tennis at the Gainesville Country Club in Florida prior to arriving in Denton.

When it was time for Raj to move to his next stage in life, an opportunity opened up for him to help out his brother at North Texas.

The decision for Sujay to bring Raj onto his coaching staff last year wasn’t solely based on their blood relation – Sujay wanted to make sure he was doing what was best for the team and also his older brother.

“I just didn’t want to rush into it when he moved here several years ago,” Sujay said. “I just wanted to make sure that it was the right thing. I didn’t want to do it just because he was my brother. I wanted to be 100 percent sure.”

And just like Sujay and associate head coach Jeff Hammond, Raj is passionate about his new endeavor.

On the courts he’s a maestro of tennis, sharing his knowledge of the game for everyone willing to listen.

But he also brings a sense of comfort and refreshment for some of the players on the team. In fact, it was the players who asked that Raj be an official part of the team going into this season.

“He’s really nice and really funny,” sophomore Maria Kononova said. “He’s basically responsible for improvements I’ve made last year and this year.”

For Raj, his mission at North Texas is a selfless one that is harnessed by his desire to deliver aspiring athletes the opportunities he was never afforded growing up.

And he is ready to give his players the chance he never had.

“I did not have me when I was younger,” Raj said. “If I had me, I’d be great. We have a lot of influence on our students’ lives. I want to feel responsible on my part. If I wanted to work for money, I’d be a pro guy.”

Featured Image: Coach Raj Lama lends a helping hand to North Texas tennis player Laura Arciniegas. Raj spends quite some time on the court teaching the girls everything he has formally learned about the game that he loves. Kaitlyn St. Clair

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Cesar Valdes

Cesar Valdes

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