When Sebastian Heim tenses up in the middle of a match, he thinks back to the first time he played tennis again after suffering what was previously a career-ending injury.
Overjoyed to be hitting again, Heim was relaxed and loose, playing with no fear on the tennis court.
“I always think back to that moment now when I’m in rhythm and everything,” said Heim. “So, sometimes when I get tight I kind of think back to that, how good it actually is to play, to be able to play.”
Perhaps it’s this newfound mentality that has led freshman to boast a 25-8 record this season en route to claiming the Big West Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors.
Born and raised in Germany, Heim’s earliest memories of tennis were as a five year-old, where he defeated several older players at his club much to their chagrin.
“They got really frustrated when I beat them, which was kind of funny to me,” laughed Heim. “That was really like when (tennis) started to click.”
By the time Heim was 14, he was competing on the German National Team, and was ranked amongst the top five players amongst his age division in the country.
Unfortunately, due to a sudden growth spurt, Heim began experiencing complications within his shoulder tendons that rendered him unable to play for the next two years. Doctors could not diagnose his ailment, and attempting to come back at the urging of family and friends only caused his injury to flare up.
“After sometime, you get sick of trying to get a comeback,” said Heim. “Again, it’s not working, it’s not working, you try it again, and you get tired of it.”
Having enrolled at a private school devoted to helping students hone their athletic abilities, Heim was forced to transfer back to a regular academic institution. While Heim was in good spirits due to the several new friends he made, he admitted “(it was) tough when you have a passion and you can’t live it.”
While it was frustrating not being able to play, the continued support of his father did help Heim in coping with the pre-emptive end of his injury.
“He said, ‘Hey, do your thing, it would be a shame if (with) all the work you put in, if you don’t start again,’” said Heim. “That really influenced me that he cared about me in general that way.”
Fortunately, Heim happened upon a trainer that was able to correctly diagnose his injury as a set of pinched nerves. After three weeks of therapy, Heim was soon able to take to the courts again without fear of inflaming his shoulders.
Despite struggling to resume where he left off as a player, Heim was simply grateful to be holding a racquet again.
“I was actually so happy to play again,” said Heim. “I didn’t really think about, okay, you’re playing that well or something, it kind of changed my whole mentality.”
While his secondary education in Germany ended, Heim decided to pursue a collegiate education in the United States to continue his renewed tennis career, as universities in Germany did not offer athletic programs.
Through a scouting agency, Heim caught the attention of UCI head coach Trevor Kronneman. Due to the strong academic reputation of UCI, the decision was an easy one for the German native.
“When I decided to do this thing with the agency, I told them I want a strong school academically too, and from all the offers I had Irvine was by far the best,” said Heim.
Upon arriving in the states, Heim was immediately taken aback by how friendly Americans were.
“That main thing that really (struck me) as odd, is that people are much more kind when you first meet them,” said Heim. “When you (meet someone) they always say ‘Hey, how are you?’, but if you ask someone in Germany, (you’d get) a one minute response. You don’t do it, it’s awkward.”
Heim also noticed a cultural disparity in regards to how each country treated athletes. After one of his first matches as an Anteater, Heim recalls a mother requesting his autograph and telling him that her son was inspired to take up tennis because of him.
“That gives you motivation, and that’s not something that I ever really experienced before,” said Heim.
To Heim, the recognition he received was something he previously had not experienced.
“That’s something beautiful in America in general,” said Heim. “Sports get recognized that much more compared to other parts in the world. In other countries, especially European countries, if you’re an athlete, people are basically like, ‘Better go and study something real.’ Here, people admire you, that’s so different.”
For Heim, the differences extend to his time on the court as well. In addition to adapting from clay court surfaces to the much quicker hard court, Heim has also become acclimated with the concept of team tennis.
“I really like the idea of team tennis, it’s really great to coach each other,” said Heim. “You can push (past your limits more), and it’s much more fun too.”
A typical collegiate tennis match can usually be a raucous affair, with players screaming words of support and encouragement to their teammates from the sidelines between points. In Germany, team matches are a different affair altogether.
Not only are seasons a mere four weeks in duration (as opposed to four months in the states), but matches themselves tend to be much more quiet.
“It’s not really considered as fair if you push each other that much as we do here,” said Heim. “(Shouting ‘Let’s go!’ between points), that’s like super unfair in Germany, you wouldn’t do that.”
While Heim is only the second Anteater in the last 23 years to earn Big West Player of the Year honors, the German native has his sights set on even higher goals.
On Heim’s to-do list is earning a NCAA national ranking, which recognizes the top 125 collegiate players in the nation.
Heim nearly achieved that goal with an upset over UCLA’s No. 2 singles player Dennis Mkrtchian earlier in the year, who was ranked as high as No. 36 in the nation. Heim even held match point during the match, but was forced to retire due to a sprained ankle, losing 4-6, 6-2, 6-5 (ret.).
“The thing is, I know that they work probably as hard as I (do), so it’s kind of hard to get close to them,” said Heim. “But I feel like this year really showed me that nothing really is impossible, and (the ranked players) are only humans too.”
After a strong start at the No. 3 and 2 singles positions, Heim moved up to No. 1 for the rest of the season, a line-up change he took in stride.
“I know there’s some responsibility that comes with it,” said Heim who finished with a 18-6 record at No. 1 , “But I just like the [being] out there and [fighting] for my team.”
Off the court, Heim remains focused on his responsibility as a student.
“That’s probably the most important thing, to go out here after four years with a professional degree,” said Heim.
After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in economics, Heim plans to pursue a Master’s in business.
For Heim, hitting the books is a welcome reprieve from the grinds of tennis.
“It’s definitely a challenge, but it doesn’t mean (I) don’t like it. I really like to not get bored, it’s a great mix,” said Heim. “The academics gives you time off the court, you don’t always have to think about tennis, that destroys you in the end.”
In addition to pursuing his masters, Heim still has other business to tend to when he graduates: reclaiming the ranking he lost in Germany while he was sidelined for two years. Since his injury, Heim’s ranking has dropped all the way down to 190 back in his homeland.
“I mean it’s not easy because I have three months at home, and stuff you play here doesn’t count for the rankings in Germany, but after my four years here, there’s nothing between me (attacking my goals),” said Heim.