Perseverance: a quality that has the potential to keep even the most novice sports fans on the edge of their seats. Whether it was No. 5 seeded Butler University qualifying for the 2010 NCAA College Basketball national championship game, 59-year-old Tom Watson nearly winning the PGA Tour’s 2009 British Open just months after having his hip replaced, or Michael Jordan becoming arguably the greatest basketball player ever after being cut from his high school basketball team, everyone seems to love an underdog.
These phenomena all share a common link: determined players with a never-ending belief in their abilities. For an athlete, obtaining these qualities can separate a good story from a great one, and the story of UC Irvine’s senior tennis player Zac Tsai has the makings of a great one.
Despite dropping four straight monumental matches to No. 7 Stanford (1-6), and conference rivals Cal Poly San Lois Obispo (2-5), Loyola Marymount (3-4), and Pacific (0-7), UC Irvine’s tennis team has featured Tsai’s story of perseverance, which transcends wins and losses.
Tsai entered UC Irvine as a freshman in 2006 without a tennis scholarship or even a spot on the team. After compiling an astounding record of 112-12 at Oaks Christian High School, including an undefeated senior season as his team’s captain, Tsai motivated himself to grind his way onto the Anteaters’ roster. As a walk-on freshman, Tsai was handed an opportunity in the form of a roster spot by former head coach Steve Clark.
“I came here humble, knowing that I had to earn my spot,” Tsai said. “When I leave this school, I want to be known as a guy who played his heart out all the time.”
Equipped with a positive attitude and determination, Tsai established himself early on at UC Irvine as a gamer.
“Quite simply, he is willing to do what others don’t in order to become better at what he believes strongly in,” Irvine’s Head Coach Trevor Kronemann said.
For Tsai, a freshman tryout was not meant to be the climax of his success story. With aspirations to become UCI’s No. 1 singles player and to someday become a professional tennis player, Tsai’s journey was just beginning.
In his freshman singles season, Tsai proved that he deserved his roster spot, achieving a record of 16-15 and earning All-Big West honorable mention. He also had a respectable 15-16 record in doubles in his freshman campaign. In his second year on campus, however, Tsai’s progress was slowed by a nagging back injury.
“My doubles team was first team in the Big West, but I couldn’t play singles,” Tsai said of his sophomore season.
As a junior, Tsai continued his strong doubles play, but struggled in his return to singles action.
“I felt like I was going backwards,” Tsai said, frustrated that his game might not have been what it once was.
With a No. 1 singles dream still unaccomplished, Tsai sought “professional” help last summer. Apparently he went to the right places.
“Over summer I received a lot of help from close friends,” Tsai said.
One of those friends: former tennis professional Michael Chang. Chang, best known for his speed and spirit on the court, voiced instrumental advice to Tsai.
“He helped me train to become a better athlete and to get into the right mindset,” Tsai said.
Another friend who Tsai consulted was Jan-Michael Gambill: once again, a tennis professional. Gambill and Tsai entered a professional tournament qualifier as a doubles team last summer. The tandem won two qualifying matches together, Kronemann explained.
Following his summer professional tennis internship, Tsai began his senior season at Irvine endowed with a newfound confidence. An impressive start as the team’s No. 4 singles player led Tsai to finally achieve his dream at UC Irvine. He was promoted as the No. 1 singles player, while still playing No. 1 doubles with sophomore teammate Steven Henderson.
“There’s so much more to accomplish,” Tsai stated, unfazed by his accomplishments. “I know it doesn’t end here.”
Tsai obtained ATP points through his doubles qualifier wins with Gambill, giving him a national ranking. “That will get me into tournaments,” Tsai explained. “I can’t afford to travel though, so I need to look for sponsors that can help me tour as a professional for a year.”
Ultimately, professional athletes can’t play forever, a reality that Tsai understands. “Tennis is just a small part of who I am,” he explained. “Not only am I working to become a better tennis player, but I’m more importantly working to become a better person.”
The economics major says that he is unsure of what he would like to do when his tennis career is over, but he maintains that his big dream is to be able to help underprivileged kids. “Who knows,” he adds, “maybe someday I could use my influence as a professional tennis player to help start up programs for children who are less fortunate.”
As the end of Tsai’s UCI career draws near, his proud coach is saddened to see him go.
“He’s going to be hard to say goodbye to,” Kronemann said. “Zac’s priorities and ambitions are going to take him far. I believe in him. You will never find someone who deserves a shot more than Zac Tsai.”
The Anteaters now look forward to the Big West Tournament starting April 30. Tsai will have many opportunities for accolades in the coming months as his professional tennis career approaches.