By: Sven Lah
Champions’ TriBUne is a special feature through Baylor Athletics that gives you the student-athlete’s perspective and the chance for them to share their own story. Sven Lah, a fifth-year grad student from Ptuj, Slovenia, earned his undergrad degree in finance and is working on a master’s in sport management, graduating next week. He is one of just four players in program history to record at least 100 wins in both singles and doubles, joining an elite 200 club that includes Baylor Hall of Famers Benjamin Becker and Lars Poerschke. Sven won the ITA All-American doubles title in 2018 with Jimmy Bendeck and is a three-time All-American in doubles, reaching the semifinals last year with Constantin Frantzen and earning a No. 3 seed in this year’s individual doubles with Finn Bass. Selected as the No. 3 national seed, Baylor men’s tennis (26-3) will face Abilene Christian (13-11) in the first round of the NCAA Championship at 6 p.m. Friday at the Hurd Tennis Center:
I want to share my experience coming to college as an international student-athlete and how Baylor helped me grow into the person I am today. I will tell you a real-life story of why everything happens for a reason; how I became a Bear and almost left for home before making a step on the campus, my ups and downs, and how Baylor prepared me for a life after college. There have been so many people with me on this journey whom I share great moments with and have built close relationships—it is nearly impossible to name each one of them.
THE SPORT THAT GAVE ME EVERYTHING
I began playing tennis at age 5, thanks to my older brother, Jan. I used to go to his practices with my parents, but was too shy to give it a try at the beginning. It took some time, but I eventually gained the confidence to pick up a racquet and start playing. My parents sacrificed so much for my brother and me. They have been my support pillars, and I would not be where I am today without them. My tennis coach, Zoran Krajnc, became my second father. He introduced me to the sport and was responsible for my tennis and character development from Day One. I come from Slovenia, a very small country of only about 2 million people, so opportunities to excel were limited, but with the help of Zoran, my tennis dreams did not seem too big.
Tennis became a big part of my life. In the beginning, I just loved to be on the court having fun, but it turned out to be something much bigger. I got to travel a lot more than my peers, see places that I would never be able to, and develop relationships with people from all over the world. Of course, none of this would be possible without making sacrifices and missing things that every typical teenager wants to do, but I would choose the same path if I had to do it all over again.
Early in my junior tennis career, my dreams and goals were to make it in the pros. I dedicated my whole childhood to tennis for that reason, and I wanted to give back to my family what they sacrificed and spent for my development. The professional tour can be very challenging to break through. While there are some exceptions, not many “teenagers” make it in pros at that early age. That is why I decided to go to college instead of playing professionally after high school. Here is where the story gets interesting. I was “committed” to a Big Ten school for almost two years before I was faced with a challenging decision. Zoran, my coach from home, had a close relationship with the head coach and had worked with a player that had attended that same school. Zoran helped me reach out and, after I achieved some decent results on the ITF Junior tournaments, I was offered a scholarship. I took an official visit and was pleasantly surprised by the facilities and campus. However, about two months before the fall semester started, the head coach notified me there were some issues with the scholarship and I was offered a different deal. I decided to look for a different school because I felt like it was very unfair being committed for so long, getting an offer, and then have things changed.
At the same time, one of my best friends from juniors, Akos Kotorman, reached out to me and told me that he committed to Baylor. He was enrolling in the fall of 2017 and suggested that I see if there was a chance for me to attend as well. I checked my messages on Facebook and realized that Matt Knoll, the coach at the time, had already reached out to me. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship and the opportunity to come to Baylor. Within days, I decided to become a Bear, without even visiting campus or looking up the school on the internet.
THE LONGEST NINE DAYS OF MY LIFE
As an international student, you need to have your high school grades formally translated and include supporting documents when sending your papers to a school and NCAA to become eligible. Because of some issues during the translation process, it took me longer to send them to Baylor. I knew that I might not be allowed to go to campus right after I landed in Dallas because I was technically not eligible, but I was hopeful the papers would arrive on time. After I arrived in Dallas, I was notified that my package had been stuck back home due to shipping issues in the post office. I contacted customer service and was told that the papers should arrive in a day or two. And then, things got worse. I was stuck in a hotel near DFW Airport without much to do. The one- or two-day wait turned into nine days. There was an Italian place and one other restaurant nearby, so I ended up eating pizza for basically nine days straight. And yes, you probably guessed it— I gained a ton of weight eating crappy food every day and spent a lot of money for a hotel room. Without even stepping foot on to the Baylor campus, I was very, very close to going back home.
TRANSITION TO COLLEGE
While I traveled and was away from home often as a junior, I had a really hard time adapting to the new environment. In the summer of 2017, a few months before coming to Baylor, I was playing at the highest level ever in my career. However, during my first fall season, I was 1-6 in the individual competition. Being away from home, doing school in a different language, and not really knowing many people made the first few months of my time at Baylor very difficult. Additionally, I missed the whole first week of school while being stuck in a hotel in DFW, which obviously did not help. I am naturally shy and not the most outgoing guy, which made my transition much harder. It took me the whole semester to settle in and get used to a new culture. The person that made this process a little easier was Michael Woodson. When I came to Baylor, Michael was the assistant coach, and was always there for me when I needed someone to talk to. He has been with me since I was a freshman. And if it was not for Michael, I do not think I would still be here, given the head coach changes. Today, Michael is our head coach, and I am so happy for him because he truly deserves it.
EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
It was not easy moving across the world, where you have no real friends, study in a different language, and the food tastes nothing like at home. But something was telling me to stay. In the first week of school, I met my future wife, Tyler Bui. Through mutual friends and a math class, we became very close friends, and it took us over three years before we started dating.
I met my best friend, Nich Ochran, on a fun Thursday night through mutual friends. He became our team manager shortly after we became friends, and all the guys appreciate what he has done for the program over the last 2-3 years. We became roommates, and I am so excited to see what the future has for us.
I also struggled with making friendships within the team, particularly with Jimmy Bendeck. Despite being roommates, we just could not get along and we barely spoke to each other. We have very different personalities that made it harder to bond with each other. In the fall of 2018, we were put together for doubles competition in the ITA All-American tournament. Without ever practicing together or playing a single practice set, we won three matches in the qualifying draw and went on to win five more matches in the main draw to win the biggest tournament of the fall. We struggled in our relationship off-court, and I think that tournament changed a lot of things. We became the No. 1 doubles team in the country, achieved great results during the season and had so much fun doing it. Our relationship continued to get better off-court, and I now consider Jimmy my best friend. We needed to lose together before we were able to win together.
CHANGES IN HEAD COACHING POSITION
During my college career, I have had three different head coaches. Each one of them taught me valuable lessons, and I am beyond grateful for them. I want to thank Matt Knoll for giving me an opportunity to be on the best tennis program in the country. Brian Boland, my second head coach, had the biggest impact on my tennis and character development. He helped me find things that truly matter, and having a positive perspective on life was something that he instilled in me. He also brought in Izak van der Merwe, who helped me get through tough times and has passed on an enormous amount of his tennis experience gained through college and the pro tour. And lastly, Michael Woodson, my third head coach. Michael has been with me from Day One. After I had a second wrist surgery in May 2020, Izak and Michael believed in me when not many people did. We came so close to winning a national championship, and they gave me an opportunity to come back for my fifth year to give it one last shot. I want to express my gratitude for them and their families. They have all been supportive from the very beginning, and I cannot thank them enough.
Dear Baylor Family, you have been one of the best parts of my life that will be with me forever. There is no award or achievement that matters more than the relationships I made with people at Baylor over the last five years. Your daily support and the opportunities provided to me and all student-athletes makes the college experience here amazing. To my teammates, thank you for pushing me and making me strive to be the best version of myself. When things got hard, you were there for me. The season is not over yet, and I cannot wait to compete for a national championship one last time.
Baylor made me a better athlete and, most importantly, a better person. I am excited for what is next, but I do not want this to end.
Previous Champions’ TriBUne Features:
Baseball – Nolan Rodriguez (Apr. 28, 2022)
Equestrian – Caroline Fuller (Apr. 14, 2022)
Men’s Tennis – Matias Soto (Mar. 17, 2022)
Soccer – Ally Henderson-Ashkinos (Mar. 3, 2022)
Volleyball – Callie Williams (Nov. 4, 2021)
Soccer – Jennifer Wandt (Oct. 14, 2021)
Softball – Lou Gilbert (Aug. 5, 2021)
Women’s Track & Field – Aaliyah Miller (May 27, 2021)
Equestrian – Madaline Callaway (May 20, 2021)
Acrobatics & Tumbling – DayAndrea Thompson (May 13, 2021)
Men’s Tennis – Constantin Frantzen (May 6, 2021)
Softball – Sidney Holman-Mansell (April 8, 2021)
Women’s Golf – Gurleen Kaur (March 25, 2021)
Baseball – Andy Thomas (March 4, 2021)
Men’s Tennis – Charlie Broom (Feb. 11, 2021)
Volleyball – Marieke van der Mark (Dec. 3, 2020)
Football – Raleigh Texada (Nov. 12, 2020)
Men’s Cross Country – Ryan Hodge (Oct. 29, 2020)
Women’s Cross Country – Sarah Antrich (Oct. 15, 2020)
Volleyball – Hannah Sedwick (Oct. 1, 2020)
Soccer – Maddie Algya (Sept. 10, 2020)
Men’s Basketball – Freddie Gillespie (March 26, 2020)
Women’s Track & Field – Tuesdi Tidwell (March 20, 2020)
Women’s Basketball – Moon Ursin (March 5, 2020)
Men’s Track & Field – Cole Hardan (Feb. 27, 2020)
Volleyball – Shelly Stafford (Jan. 30, 2020)
Men’s Golf – Mike McGraw (Jan. 3, 2020)
Volleyball – Yossiana Pressley (Dec. 5, 2019)
Baseball – Nick Loftin (Nov. 21, 2019)
Men’s Cross Country – Ryan Day (Nov. 1, 2019)
Women’s Cross Country – Lindsay Walton (Oct. 15, 2019)
Men’s Basketball – Obim Okeke (Oct. 1, 2019)
Volleyball – Gia Milana (Sept. 17, 2019)
Soccer – Raegan Padgett (Sept. 5, 2019)
Football – Sam Tecklenburg (Aug. 29, 2019)
Men’s Golf – Cooper Dossey (July 11, 2019)
Baseball – Richard Cunningham (June 27, 2019)
Men’s Tennis – Jimmy Bendeck (June 14, 2019)
Baseball – Shea Langeliers (May 30, 2019)
Women’s Track & Field – Kiana Horton (May 22, 2019)
Men’s Golf – Garrett May (May 9, 2019)
Women’s Golf – Maria Vesga (May 2, 2019)
Acrobatics & Tumbling – Camryn Bryant (April 25, 2019)
Equestrian – Shannon Hogue (April 16, 2019)
Women’s Tennis – Angelina Shakhraichuk (April 9, 2019)
Women’s Basketball – Lauren Cox (March 22, 2019)
Men’s Track & Field – Wil London (March 7, 2019)
Men’s Basketball – Jake Lindsey (March 4, 2019)
Softball – Nicky Dawson (Feb. 21, 2019)
Baseball – Josh Bissonette (Feb. 14, 2019)
Men’s Tennis – Will Little (Jan. 31, 2019)
Men’s Basketball – King McClure (Jan. 17, 2019)
Women’s Basketball – Chloe Jackson (Jan. 3, 2019)
Football – Blake Blackmar (Dec. 13, 2018)
Volleyball – Braya Hunt (Nov. 29, 2018)
Soccer – Jackie Crowther (Nov. 16, 2018)
Women’s Cross Country – Alison Andrews-Paul (Nov. 8, 2018)
Football – Ira Lewis (Nov. 6, 2018)