Hard work and head games: Samantha Budai leaves behind legacy beyond the court

Senior Samantha Budai played for Iowa State tennis on April 23. They fell 0-4 against Oklahoma. This was the final home match for Budai. She earned the first-ever national ranking by a Cyclone tennis player. 

Andrew Smith

It wasn’t an average day for Iowa State tennis. Sunday, April 23rd, was a day full of laughter, tears, hugs and more tears.

The Iowa State tennis team was celebrating senior day. For Samantha Budai, this was her last time she would ever take the court at home alongside her teammates.

It was a perfect day for tennis. It was 72 degrees and not a cloud in the sky as the Cyclones took the court to conclude the 2016-17 season. Budai, one of the best players in Iowa State tennis history, stepped on the court. 

She is the first player to be nationally ranked in program history. With that, she brings with her the third most singles wins in school history, the second most doubles wins in Iowa State history and just the second Cyclone ever to earn a Big 12 Player of the Week honor.

But the career that Budai had at Iowa State almost never happened. The London, Ontario, native almost didn’t come to Iowa State.

The road to Iowa State

Contrary to the United States, high school sports aren’t as big of a spectacle in Canada. To get any exposure, athletes are required to travel and compete in tennis tournaments across the nation.

“The high school aspect didn’t matter as much, it was more about the tournaments,” Budai said. “I lived far away from most tournaments, so I only focused on the big tournaments. Not many coaches come to Canada to look at you.”

Budai found herself sending tapes, stats and the best results she had to Division I colleges. It was almost like she was applying for jobs, but instead she was looking for a place to take a chance on her mostly unknown tennis ability. 

“My family didn’t have a lot of money to travel to the places, getting myself out there was hard,” Budai said. “I was beating some good players, but I wasn’t constantly playing those tournaments.”

She found herself in a tough spot as a senior in high school. She had sent her tapes and stats to a number of Division I colleges. But she still was running into trouble. 

“I went on a visit to Montana in late April of my senior year,” Budai said. “I thought that was going to be the place I was going to go to because they were really interested.

“I didn’t hear from them after.”

Budai found herself in May with no school picked out and time running slim. Most girls had already committed in the fall. She decided to reach out to a few more schools.

“I saw that Iowa State had two scholarships right away and I contacted them in late June,” Budai said. “They got back to me right away and pretty much offered me a scholarship.” 

She googled the university saw that she would be able to compete in a top league and took a virtual tour of campus. She finally accepted her scholarship to Iowa State. 

Budai had been to the United States before, but never to Iowa. In fact, she had never heard of the state before.

Her mom, Yvette Budai, wanted the best for her daughter, but of course she worried.

“It was her decision, I always supported her and when she said she was going to Iowa I said, ‘Sure, whatever works for you,'” Yvette said. “You always worry about your kids, but she is very mature and very independent. This is a very nice community so I never really worried that much.”

With the encouragement of her family and friends, Samantha embarked on her journey to Iowa. She had achieved her goal of playing Division I tennis. The question became how would she fare?

Turns out, pretty good. 

The start of a legacy

As soon as Samantha got on campus, things were different than home, but at the same time, she was used to change and adapted quickly to life as an Iowa State tennis player.

“The size of the school was big,” Samantha said. “I don’t want to say Americans are different, but it was different making friends outside of tennis. Luckily, I had my teammates. I was used to moving around and being on my own, it wasn’t as overwhelming as I thought it would be. I like working hard and taking on new challenges, so if felt right.”

Once her freshman season quickly rolled around, she found herself playing high in the lineup in a senior-laden roster. She went 9-8 at No. 2 singles and 10-9 at No. 1 doubles. Samantha fit in well in a tough lineup, but she started to have second thoughts about her home at Iowa State.

“I didn’t have a great year, but I was excited about my lineup spot,” Samantha said. “The team didn’t do so great, I was debating whether I should keep playing and if this was right for me. It was a lot of mental frustration, but I had a lot of people in my life telling me to keep playing and it does get better for sure.”

After her freshman year, Samantha took over as the overall No. 1 for the Cyclones. What followed was struggles. She was a team leader, but not necessarily prepared to take on that role. 

The majority of the women on the team weren’t used to playing as a team. And the idea of team chemistry and team unity was a tough aspect for some in a sometimes-individual sport.

“Culture has always been a struggle with our team,” Samantha said. “Looking at other teams and then ours, we never really had a culture It was kind of always my goal to get the girls together. We wanted to do it for us.”

Samantha conceded the culture aspect of the team wasn’t fixed until her senior season. But she’s happy that she will be leaving behind something for the incoming players. 

“I’m sad it didn’t happen earlier,” Samantha said. “But I am glad it happened with this group of girls. I think we really build [a culture] this year.”

Her sophomore year yielded one of the toughest challenges of her career. She went 9-12 in singles and 8-10 at No. 1 doubles. Then she encountered her biggest enemy in her collegiate career — herself.

“I was so focused on my goals and I worried about what would happen if I don’t achieve them.” Samantha said. “I thought that I’m not good enough to be here and I’m not good enough for this, it mentally caused me to not reach my potential.”

Samantha had always had big expectations for herself, even as a kid.

“Sami, even when she was little growing up, she always set high standards for herself,” Yvette said. “She’s never satisfied with what she accomplished, But I am proud of her for what she has accomplished.”

Samantha struggled with this throughout her junior year, when she posted a 16-15 record in singles as well as a school record 23-9 in doubles. But the story wasn’t her tremendous growth as a player. It was her newly acquired mental toughness.

“All throughout my life I’ve struggled with that,” Samantha said. “I would miss a shot and then miss the next six and then I would get so frustrated and let one or two shots effect the whole game, I would shoot myself down with negative comments and give up on the match.” 

Samantha knew that it wasn’t worth it anymore. She felt foolish when she gave up and then regretted it after she walked off the court she knew people didn’t want to come and see that.

So she made a change.

“I was so fixated on not wanting to lose that I lost anyways. You’re never going win all your matches and you’re never going to play perfect,” Samantha said. “I had to learn to accept that and learn to know that if you gave it your all it could go your way.”

It finally came full circle when Iowa State coach Armando Espinosa asked Samantha a key question: Why are you afraid of losing? 

“He always told me it wasn’t my game that made me lose,” Samantha said. “He told me it was literally the mental part. Even my mom told me that. It’s the ability pick yourself up and bounce back that really makes the difference.”

He even went as far as to recommend her some books about the mental aspect of playing tennis.

“It’s normal to have negative thoughts, but you need to say something positive after every point,” Budai said. 

With the mentality aspect of her game finally under control, Samantha took on her senior year full speed ahead. Even if she is looked at as one of the greatest Iowa State tennis players of all time, she wants her mark to be felt on a personal level.

“I want the girls to strive to be better for themselves,” Samantha said. “I think it’s nice that the girls can strive to be what I am. It also helps that I was on their teams with them every step of the way.”

Samantha wants more for the program and hopes to be a spark to ignite the program to bigger and better things.

“I want it to become more constant. I want it to become a team thing, I don’t want to hear oh this is the first for the program,” she said. “I want the girls to know that no matter where you come from if you put the effort in you can do anything.” 

Samantha will walk away among the top Cyclone tennis players of all time, but her story isn’t over after she graduates.

“I hope the players walk away with something from her,” Espinosa said. “She is a fantastic player.” 

The end? Perhaps not 

Samantha may have accomplished many of her goals as a Cyclone, but she still has one more to go in her career. 

“I always had the goal of at least trying to go professional,” she said. “I don’t want this to be the end of my career.”

Once in a great while, a program gets players who raise the bar of the entire team during the present and the future. Samantha came in to Iowa State with a goal in mind to be the best. As cliché as it sounds, Samantha is one of the best players in program history, but her stats tell half the story.

Her hard work tells the other half.

If the professional dream doesn’t work out, she isn’t worried. Samantha plans on heading back to school to get her degree in archeology. She loves to travel and doesn’t mind where her life takes her. 

Samantha walked off the court the final time as a Cyclone, as the team fell 4-1 to Kansas State in the first round of the Big 12 Championships last Thursday.

She won’t leave behind an unbreakable record, nor will she leave an incredible winning percentage, but she will leave behind the idea that no matter how hard you work, if you put the effort in, even if you just want to break the lineup, it can happen.

“You can do anything if you set your mind to it,” Samantha said. “As long as you have a goal and you strive for it all those things like breaking a record or making history will come.”