Hayden Sabatka never lost a tennis match at No. 1 singles during his final two seasons playing for Highlands Ranch High School.
Still the two-time Class 5A state champion knew he would be facing stiffer competition against Division I opponents as a member of the University of New Mexico tennis team.
Sabatka, Colorado Community Media's 2012 South Metro Player of the Year, won the Class 5A state singles titles in 2011 and 2012 and was third as a sophomore. He compiled a four-year 82-3 high school record, playing on the varsity level each year.
“College is an entirely new level,” confessed Sabatka. “You play really good people every day. I play against my team and they are really good. I play them every day and then I play opponents that are better than me.
“The term at New Mexico is that `practice makes perfect' and it is definitely true because all my practice in college has made me better and it's mostly consistency and more power with ground strokes and serves.”
Sabatka, competing primarily at No. 2 singles, was named the 2014 Mountain West Conference's Male Freshman of the Year and he also earned All-Conference honors.
“I knew what I was going to be getting into,” said Sabatka. “I knew that going from high school to college was way different. Everyone that is playing Division I college tennis knows how to play. You don't have easy matches, you don't get a walk through. It was nice to go to college and have these guys that wanted to beat me and could. That's made me stronger in every area of my game.''
Sabatka posted a 7-4 record during last fall's tournament season and went 17-8 during the regular season to finish with an overall singles record of 24-12 during his first collegiate campaign. The 17 wins tied the Lobo record for most regular season victories.
“I was pretty happy,” he said. “The fall was just tournaments every other weekend. It was pretty much about getting my feet wet. That got me ready for the spring and in the spring I just came out strong.
“I think I won like 11 in a row, played really well and then lost like one and it was pretty scattered throughout the rest of the season. I just noticed from the beginning of the spring to the end that my game improved a bunch. I just wonder what is going to happen in the fall and next spring. I'm just kind of waiting to see what else I can do, what else I can prove and see how much better I can get.”
Sabatka has done a lot on his own this summer, winning the Denver City Open singles crown and capturing the title in the Boulder Tennis Open.
“This summer I've played pretty well,” he said. “After a year of college and getting better overall, I wanted to be able to come back and show everyone I've gotten a lot better and be able to keep up that level and play well throughout the summer.”
Sabatka also received academic recognition during the 2013-14 season. He was chosen for the academic all-conference team and named a scholar-athlete by the Mountain West. He was also selected as a 2014 Intercollegiate Tennis Association Scholar Athlete.
“It was kind of hard at the beginning of the fall to be able to situate, be able to wake up, go to class, run to practice and do everything at practice and then run back and maybe have another class, go to my dorm, do homework and go to bed,” he said. “The first few weeks and maybe months were crazy because I was kind of getting used to it.
“The spring was kind of hard because there were a little bit harder classes but since I was kind of prepared from the fall it was too bad.”
His scholastic success was gratifying since he didn't graduate from Highlands Ranch because of tennis conflicts that forced him to miss weeks of school.
He graduated from Insight School of Colorado.
“That was my online school that I went to,” explained Sabatka. “I went to Highlands Ranch then I dropped out and went to Insight. I wanted to play a bunch of tournaments, not in Colorado. When I traveled and came back, Highlands Ranch wasn't really a big fan of me missing like a half month of every month.
“In the spring I had too many tournaments and my teachers weren't willing to work with me, so I transferred to an online school to finish high school.”