Samantha Budai: ‘As good as I want to be’

Sammy Budai, freshman, has shined in her first season at Iowa State. The Canada-native is on a full-ride scholarship to play tennis for the Cyclones.

Max Dible

In May 2013, a young, aspiring tennis player named Samantha Budai sat down at her computer in London, Ontario, to take one final stab at achieving the singular dream that had consumed her focus during the previous four years — the dream of playing collegiate tennis.

Budai had already created and distributed a recruitment video along with dozens of emails to nearly every university in the nation with a Division I women’s tennis program.

One of the few schools Budai failed to contact during her initial search was Iowa State. Budai said while making her inquiries, Iowa State simply got lost in the shuffle.

It was a mistake she would soon rectify.

Roughly 20 schools responded to Budai’s first email blast, most simply to inform her that no scholarships were available, but that they had interest if she was willing to play as a walk-on.

Unfortunately for Budai, it wasn’t a question of willingness. Budai’s parents did not have the means to pay for her college education, which eliminated walking-on as an option.

“I wouldn’t be going to school if I wasn’t playing tennis,” Budai said. “I honestly don’t know [what I’d be doing].”

After months in pursuit of a scholarship, Montana invited Budai for a visit in early May, but ultimately decided to offer its last full-ride spot to another player.

Budai’s father, Carmine Budai, referred to her effort during that difficult time as one of his proudest moments.

“She worked so hard to get a scholarship,” Carmine said. “After the trip to Montana, she did it all on her own. That really showed me how much she wanted to play.”

It was then that Budai — struggling through a drawn out process of rejection and disappointment — made her final attempt to extend her tennis career by emailing ISU coach Armando Espinosa.

“I was left without [many] options,” Budai said. “I [thought] ‘OK, I’m going to try one more time and email a couple schools I maybe missed or something.’ So I emailed Iowa State.”

Budai’s last-ditch effort proved to be her most fruitful, transforming her dreams into reality — a reality tinted by ISU cardinal and gold.

Espinosa, who was on a trip of his own when he received Budai’s video, didn’t wait long to reach out.

“We had people that we were looking at, but we were still kind of in the mix,” Espinosa said. “The minute I saw the video, saw the results and cross-referenced a couple girls that she played … it was pretty easy for us to make a decision that we wanted her to get a scholarship.”

Budai said when she got the offer to join the ISU tennis team by way of a full ride, the first thing she felt was relief. That relief was followed quickly by joy and the desire to share the news with her family.

“I ended the call and I told my dad right away,” Budai said. “He was so happy.”

Espinosa said what made Budai jump off the screen in that first viewing was her long and powerful stroke as well as how quickly she hit the ball.

Coincidentally, it was Budai’s power that initially alerted her father to her potential as a tennis player when Budai was only 7 years old.

“I just noticed she could bang the ball pretty hard when she was small,” Carmine said. “We went to her first tournaments when she was maybe seven. She’d be playing kids a couple years older than her and hit the ball harder than they did.”

Budai’s promise was evident early on, but talent needs cultivation. Personal coaches and extensive tournament experience were luxuries which required money — money Budai said simply was not available to her.

“My parents didn’t have the money for it, so I didn’t get the experience of even having a club to train at,” Budai said. “I just had a couple courts to hit with the few people I could, so it wasn’t really the intense training that everyone else was getting.”

ISU junior Meghan Cassens spoke about the importance of high level competition on a regular basis and what that means to development as a tennis player.

“If you have people to play with that are at a high level then it’s probably not as crucial to have a personal coach,” Cassens said. “But, if you’re stuck with people that aren’t as good, you can’t really progress if you don’t have another coach on the side.”

Because of her family’s lack of finances, Budai did much of her playing in the high school ranks, which she said are not the same in Canada as they are in the United States.

“High school sports are different in Canada,” Budai said. “It’s not as serious as it is here. We had a tennis team, but it was kind of a joke and no one took it seriously.”

Her lack of funds made it difficult to pursue her tennis dreams effectively, but Budai’s father admitted that dividing of the family’s limited resources also played a role in Budai’s lack of pre-college experience.

Carmine said he tried to treat Budai and her older sister Nicolette fairly — especially in terms of the money that went toward tennis, which they each played — but that Budai had an explosive temper, which unbalanced the scales.

She would get frustrated when she struggled and blow up, Carmine said. Because of that volatility, she wasn’t getting enough out of the tournaments to make them worth the money.

Budai ignored advice and once, even cursed at a judge.

Carmine described Budai playing “hardly at all,” even half as frequently as her older sister.

After Budai’s older sister graduated from high school, some funds freed up and a more mature, but still fiery, Budai played in more tournaments, including both provincials and nationals in Canada every year.

Still, Budai’s frequency of play paled in comparison to many of her tennis counterparts.

After being denied a scholarship at Montana, and considering her lack of experience, the chances appeared slim that Budai would play in college at all, Carmine said.

Yet for Budai, perhaps the biggest surprise wasn’t the high pressured, last-minute, whirlwind fashion by which she ended up at Iowa State, but how well she has performed since becoming a Cyclone.

As a freshman, Budai has already risen through the ranks of Iowa State to claim the No. 2 singles position, and is also a part of the No. 1 doubles team, playing alongside junior Ksenia Pronina.

Budai stumbled early in her freshman campaign, opening the team season Jan. 17 in Fort Meyers, Fla., against Florida Gulf Coast with losses in both singles and doubles.

Since then, Budai has been perfect, winning all seven of her singles matches. With the help of Pronina, Budai has also posted a perfect 6-0 mark at No. 1 doubles since that sole defeat in mid-January.

“I wasn’t expecting that at all, especially because I didn’t have the experience other people did,” Budai said. “When I heard I was [the No. 2 player], that was really shocking.”

Budai credited Espinosa with helping her identify the little things that were causing problems in her game, which she said has been the biggest factor in her consistent improvement.

“I still feel like I have a lot to learn because no one has ever taught me,” Budai said. “Now I have a real coach to tell me these things, and they’re things I didn’t notice myself.”

Espinosa’s expertise is exactly what Budai needed to bring out her full potential, Carmine said.

“I figured if someone could deal with her temper, and she got a little older, a little smarter, and grew out of it, that she’d have all the tools,” Carmine said. “She can play.”

While Budai has added her talent-laden game to Espinosa’s arsenal, she also brought her short fuse to the mix, which Espinosa said is a problem the two are working to solve together.

“She’s getting a little bit more used to what college tennis is about,” Espinosa said. “It took a little bit, but now I think she’s taming a little bit more. Her character has been a little bit better.

Espinosa said that, like Budai, he too has been “pleasantly surprised” with the rapid ascension of both her mental and physical games. However, upon arriving at Iowa State, Budai immediately showed traits which made a high level of early success plausible.

“She probably knows herself better than anybody, which is great in a tennis player,” Espinosa said. “She’s going to strike the ball … and she’s going to win on her terms. That is what makes her a good tennis player.”

Espinosa said that if the progress he’s witnessed in Budai’s first several months on campus continues to increase steadily throughout her career, by the time Budai is an upperclassmen she will be able to compete with any player in the country.

“She can be as good as she wants to be,” Espinosa said.

Budai said that the mindset with which she approaches the game will help her to perform at an elite level.

“I’m really hard on myself,” Budai said. “I always think I can do better; that I should be doing better. I’m never happy with how I’m playing, even if I have a good match and I win.”

Budai said her ultimate goal is to one day play professional tennis, but that right now she’s just focused on getting better every single day.

“My whole life everyone has been telling me that I have so much potential, but that because I get mad, I never play at my full potential” Budai said. “Everyone tells me that. I just have to start believing that I can be good.

“As good as I want to be.”