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Sebastian Heim: The Comeback Kid

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As Sebastian Heim walked out to his car in the parking lot, his phone rang.

“Sebastian,” the nurse’s voice sounded tense. “I have your x-ray results. Come back immediately.”

Heim, a junior at UCI who had just begun the fall tournament season for the men’s tennis team, walked back into the health center to review the results of the tests the doctor had conducted just minutes prior.

It did not look good, there were patches all over his lungs and he would need to see a pulmonologist.

We had that leak in the ceiling in our apartment, Heim thought…

A few days earlier Heim had exhibited flu-like symptoms. It was presumably just another bump in the road for the Speyer, Germany native looking to rebound after a year that saw his stock ascend but ended with disappointment in the form of a bum hip that kept him out for a month in the spring and virtually the entire summer.

Looking to build on a freshman campaign that yielded Big West Freshman and Player of the Year honors, a first for the conference, Heim led the UCI tennis team at number one singles in his sophomore year, sporting a 10-3 record in dual matches and landing on the All-Big West Singles First Team. In November of that year, he started experiencing some hip discomfort but, with the help of the trainers, kept it under control with a steady diet of stretching, ice baths and physical therapy.

By the time spring rolled around, Heim could barely walk, and agreed to take the entire month of March off during the season. As the Big West championships approached, Heim geared up for one last hurrah for the six seniors that were graduating. Advil and painkillers got him through the grind of the last week but as the season ended, he had to take 3-4 months off to allow his hip to heal.

Going from a student-athlete with a packed schedule to a world of downtime didn’t sit well with Heim, an avid trainer who thrives on fitness and attention to form. He flew back to Germany for the summer months and tried in different ways to cope and find different outlets for his energy.

“I actually had time to spend with my girlfriend (laughs),” remarked Heim, “Took care of business there.”
For the majority of the summer however, the excess of time on his hands was difficult for him to overcome.

“Seeing all the guys out there grinding, fighting, and I just had to rest up. I hated it. I used to spend a lot of time practicing and working out. Definitely not easy, just kept telling myself I had to do it.”

Heim was finally able to play tennis again about two weeks before his flight back to California, and was ready to get back into the grind after four months on the mend. Two weeks into practice back at Irvine, the flu-like symptoms set in — and with it the news of his illness.

Heim immediately called a mold specialist to check out his apartment, one that he shared with four other tennis players, in Newport Beach, 28th street, right on the beach.

The specialist took one look at the wall and the apartment and declared it unlivable, urging Heim and his roommates to clean everything, throw away what they could, and move out immediately. Walls were soaked; there was mold everywhere and multiple spores in the air. Fortunately for the fate of the tennis team, the other four players escaped unscathed.

Heim missed classes for nearly a month, and after tasting his old life briefly he had it ripped away from him yet again. After antibiotics and rest that spanned two months, he was finally ready to take the court at last in mid-December, albeit for some light hitting.

“It felt good, but as you can imagine, taking a break from March until September, playing for four weeks then taking another eight weeks off, my fitness level was pretty much hitting rock bottom.”

As the spring season began, the ‘Eaters hosted Utah State at home, and Heim lost a match he would normally win. It was chalked up to being rusty, and with the unrelenting grind of the season, it was a contest not to be dwelled upon. What came next was the real challenge. A matchup with perennial tennis powerhouse USC and their number one singles player Logan Smith, ranked #28 in the country.

A lion’s den of college tennis if there ever was one, Marks Stadium at USC waits for the ‘Eaters to file in and greets them with maroon and gold courts underneath the giant scoreboard adorned with all the years USC captured the national championship. 21 to be exact, the most of any program in NCAA history.

UCI narrowly misses securing the doubles point to the mighty Trojans, but validates their presence by taking the deciding match to a tie breaker. Head Coach Mike Saunders, resident optimist, assures his team they belong, and urges them that this is theirs for the taking. The team locks arms and forms a circle with Heim in the middle. UCI! UCI!

Heim makes his way over to center court, loosening up, chatting with the judge. Smith finally appears and the heavyweight battle gets underway. Smith wins the coin toss and elects to serve first, protects his serve and takes a quick 1-0 lead.

It’s Heim’s turn to serve, and he comes down on the ball with his patented overhand left, a magnificent mix of power and technique. He ties it up, and eyes breaking Smith’s serve in the next game.

In a flurry of cross-court returns and steady groundstrokes, Heim flaunts his arsenal of shots, playing the mind game, searching for the psychological edge as he changes rhythms and patterns. It’s break point. A short rally is emphatically ended as Heim uses all the force his six feet and two inches can muster to send a forehand down the line for the winner.

Heim erupts, “COME ON!”

He has taken control of this set, as Smith looks tentative against the dominance put forth by Heim. They trade games as he takes the first set 6-3, along with the momentum.

But there’s a reason Smith is ranked 28th in the country and leads a top-10 team at number one singles. His arsenal is as diverse and lethal as Heim’s, and he lets loose in the second set. Smith jumps out to a 2-0 lead, but Heim stays calm to induce two errors as he claims the third game. He’s about to break his opponents serve again before Smith rockets a killer shot down the line to move to deuce. Heim grins. It seems the only appropriate response after witnessing a display like that.

Smith ends up taking that game and quickly establishes a 40-0 lead in the next. The first looks of frustration creep across Heim’s face. The months off are starting to take a toll, and he senses minor discomfort in his hip. Smith looks like a humming machine, firing on all cylinders, and finishes the German off 6-1 in the second set.

Going into the break, Heim promptly removes all pressure he feels and places it on Smith.

“He’s the one who’s top 30, he’s got all the pressure on his side. Ten-point breaker. Anything can happen.”

Coach Saunders strolls over to offer Heim a quick pep talk. “Ten-point breaker. This is good for you. You’re gonna take it.” Simple as that.

The third set is where the arcs of the shots get a little loopier. The way the players move you would think they were playing on mud rather than acrylic-lined asphalt. Both players are tired, more emphasis is placed on will over ability. Heim takes the first point. And the second, third, and fourth. He looks over and sees Smith getting pretty tight, pretty nervous. Just keep the ball in play, make him work for it, thinks Heim.

“This point, this point right here,” chirps Saunders from the sideline.

Smith doesn’t come close as Heim finishes off the #28 singles player in the country 10-4 in the tiebreaker. UCI falls 6-1 at the end of the day, but come away with a sense of validation after vying for the doubles point and leaving with the flight one singles victory against a top-10 team.

“That’s what coach works with us on all year, staying mentally tough,” said Heim, “It was a no brainer for me to just stay in the tunnel, stay super-focused. The whole theme of the match is play in the moment, compete to the last point, that was the overall mindset for me.”

Heim provides another example of leadership for a young team that was without its leader for nearly a year. In his journey from Speyer to Irvine, he has overcome no shortage of obstacles from which he can draw inspiration.

Born and raised in Speyer to a stay-at-home mom who is now a kindergarten teacher and a father who works as a mechanical engineer, Heim was introduced to the game of tennis at the age of five by his father, who still plays on a club team in Germany. In a country where soccer dominates youth sports, Heim credits his father with supporting him in his tennis endeavors.

“Soccer is untouchable number one, in Germany you have to be able to play soccer as a guy. Definitely peer pressure going on at recess,” recalls Heim.

As he aged and practice volume increased, he began to perform well in tournaments as an 8 and 9 year old, and drew the eye of tennis coach Roger Langknecht, who he would train with for nearly ten years, and still remains close with to this day.

Heim ran into a roadblock in high school, where he grew nearly a foot in one year and experienced nagging injuries, especially his shoulder, that would threaten to erase competitive tennis from his life. He almost quit for good, but began to play towards the end of high school after being sidelined for about two years, and realized he still found great joy in playing the game. As graduation approached, Heim had some big decisions to make. He had known teammates from club teams that ventured over to America to play collegiate tennis, and received generally positive feedback. The reason so many international students come to play college sports in America, especially Europeans, is that there are no college sports.

“If you go to university, that’s it for you. You’re not able to play, you have to move, you don’t have a coach, you don’t have a team.”

Heim wanted to continue competing at a high level, and also wanted an academic degree. He registered with a German agency that American coaches could contact for more information or a recruiting video. It wasn’t long before Heim received a Facebook message from Trevor Kronemann, the head coach before Saunders got the gig, asking if he would consider playing college tennis at UCI. The deal was sealed; Heim didn’t even feel the need to visit.

“When I got the offer in California there was no question. It looked amazing, it is amazing, everything I ever wanted, no regrets.”

He committed in November of 2013, graduated high school the next March, and moved over to his dorm in Mesa the week before school started. Although his game transitioned well from Germany, it was often a struggle for Heim to adjust in his academic life. It’s difficult for anyone to take the first few months of college in stride, let alone in a foreign language. While Heim was exposed to conversational English in his grade school and high school years, the language on an academic level was markedly different. The culture was a shock as well, but most times in a positive way.

“People are way more friendly here,” said Heim. “It definitely sticks out. On the casual side, if you see someone they always give you that ‘Hey what’s up.’ That’s not expected and not really wanted in Germany. If you say what’s up in Germany they’ll look at you like ‘What? Am I supposed to answer you?’”

The whole collegiate sports culture was foreign to Heim as well, including the rankings and awards, so he did his best to keep it simple. Play for the team. Try your best. Leave it all on the court. Tennis was only half the reason he had come to the United States, and Heim needed time and energy to figure out how to advance his academic career.
With the right attitude and discipline, Heim locked up his major (economics and international studies) and set out on a tear on the tennis court. He quickly rose to compete at number one singles and cemented his status as a vocal leader through his success and work habits.

“There are leaders, and then you have the leader of leaders,” Coach Saunders said of Heim.
Saunders’ sentiment is why Heim’s presence was so dearly missed due to his injuries and sorely needed upon his return.

“We have a very young team, lots of freshmen and sophomores, and as team captain I always want to set an example of what good behavior and good mental strength looks like. While fighting on the court, I try to be super focused while I’m out here. The way I look at it, you get 3 hours everyday. In college tennis, whoever uses those 3 hours the best, wins in the end.”