Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 2 a.m.
With the game, match or set on the line, UNLV sophomore Lucia Batta will likely experience every negative emotion an elite athlete is supposed to shut out in this exact situation.
She gets scared, loses confidence, doubts herself and overthinks mistakes.
She also wins. A lot.
Batta is poised to become the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year after going 7-0 in league singles matches this spring. She’s ranked 60th in the nation with a 30-8 overall record after beginning her Lady Rebels career as the conference Freshman of the Year, all with an unconventional forehand borne out of an injury.
When UNLV begins Mountain West tournament play Thursday against Colorado State, Batta will stare down all those moments of dread to lead the Lady Rebels’ bid for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, just four years after she could barely pick up a racket.
“It was a big process,” Batta said.
Batta, a native of Budapest, Hungary, started playing tennis at age 5. No one else in her family played, but she found it fun, and soon enough people started telling her how good she was, furthering her interest in the game.
In 2007, Batta started to feel pain in her right wrist, a lingering feeling that didn’t deter her from staying on the court. She didn’t think much of it until one day when she realized she could no longer play through it.
The problem turned out to be a torn ligament, which required surgery and a couple months off. When she returned to the court, Batta, who’s right-handed, tried to regain her swing, but it quickly became clear that something still wasn’t right.
“I think the doctor screwed up, but they didn’t say that, of course,” Batta said.
After spending another month on the sidelines, Batta’s return started with just squeezing a ball as she attempted to regain strength in her forearm.
“It was very weak,” Batta said. “I had to, almost every day, go to the gym to work on it and then start playing just a half-hour at first, just from the service box, and then build it up.”
Early on in her recovery, Batta realized it was going to be nearly impossible to hit a forehand — a swinging stroke from the right side of her body — the same she had before the injury. The forehand is a power shot, and after the injury, she couldn’t get enough strength behind the stroke to be effective.
So, she started adding her left for a two-handed forehand that UNLV coach Kevin Cory said he hasn’t seen in a premier women’s tennis player since former No. 1 Monica Seles.
“It’s not something you would necessarily teach somebody coming up, but she had to adapt to what she faced with the injury,” Cory said.
Several of Batta’s practices consisted of nothing but forehands. It took her about a year to feel OK about her game again. Of course, Batta's "OK" looks dominant to outsiders.
The challenge of changing her forehand actually helped Batta with other areas of her game. Using two hands requires more speed because you often have to be closer to the ball — picture standing sideways at a right arm’s length from the refrigerator and then trying to grab milk with your left hand.
The change has been a success by any measure. Batta came to UNLV in 2010 because she knew someone else who had played here, and she’s already the top-ranked player.
Cory said Batta isn’t very vocal with her teammates, but she sets the tone in practice with her play.
“If you could draw a picture of the ideal player to have on your team, she would be right there,” Cory said.
This weekend, it will take more than just Batta’s forehand to find success. UNLV is nationally ranked at No. 48, the last at-large slot for the 64-team NCAA Tournament. The bubble isn’t a familiar place for the Lady Rebels, who have made the last five tournaments.
“Typically at this time of year, we know we’re a lock in the tournament,” Cory said. “It definitely makes you a little more anxious going into it.”
A trip to Sunday’s conference tourney finals in San Diego would probably be enough to get in, but the only guarantee is winning the whole thing. And that’s exactly what Batta and the Lady Rebels intend to do.
If Batta enters a pressure situation in the tournament, the inner dialogue that has followed her for many years will creep up and threaten to derail her. The conundrum is that her doubts generally only creep up when she’s winning.
“I start really good, win the first set easy, and the second set I’m like, ‘I’m going to win. It’s so easy. What is happening?’ and then I lose confidence,” Batta said.
No matter how worked up her mind gets, though, Batta usually pulls out a win, a credit to her skill and muscle memory.
She’s still putting things together, still perfecting her forehand. The scary thing for opponents is Batta’s still getting better.