March 7, 2012
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UCLA freshman women's tennis player Kaitlin Ray is listed at No. 80 in the current ITA singles rankings. She has had a remarkable start to her college career, owning a 19-2 overall record, including an 11-0 mark in dual matches. Her play has been a big reason why the Bruins are ranked No. 1 in the nation and are off to their best start in 22 years. Ray recently took time out of her busy schedule to sit down with uclabruins.com to discuss such topics as what it was like leaving home at 16, the bond she has formed with her new UCLA teammates, and what she enjoys doing when she's not playing tennis.
It's safe to say that Arkansas doesn't produce as many elite-level tennis players as, say, California or Florida. What was it like growing up and playing tennis there?
"Arkansas is definitely not a tennis Mecca by any means. My case is a little bit different in that neither of my parents played tennis. I started playing when I was four of five and I just tagged along with my sister one summer. I also did soccer and gymnastics and then ended up choosing to focus solely on tennis when I was about 10 or 11. Thankfully I had a really good coach in Arkansas (Martin Kajevski) who I worked with from the time I was 12 to 16. After that it was hard to find good competition to play against so that's when I moved away from home (Ray spent two years at the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy in Hilton Head, S.C.). I think moving away from home when I was 16 made the transition to college that much easier. But at the time the decision to leave home was difficult. I was fortunate to have two years of regular high school under my belt so I feel like I still had a normal experience. Leaving meant that I had to give up many aspects of my social life and that was hard. And obviously it was huge being away from my family. I come from a very close family so the decision to leave was not only a big sacrifice for me, it was probably an even bigger sacrifice for my parents. Unfortunately they lost me two years earlier than they had to. But I'm thankful for the experience."
The freshmen class has been outstanding this season. Is it a close-knit group? And does the fact that all four of you are so far away from home help the bond between you?
"I think it's really neat that we come from all over the country (In addition to Ray, this year's freshmen starters are Skylar Morton from Maryland, Robin Anderson from New Jersey and Chanelle Van Nguyen from Florida). We knew each other from the juniors, but it's been a neat experience for me getting to know them all so well here at UCLA. We spend so much time together, not just on the court but off it as well. We eat dinner together. We study together. I remember coach Rance (Brown) telling me before I got here that it's important that you form a bond with the girls you come in with because they are going to become your sisters. I think that was really great advice because I've seen it happen. We have all gotten a lot closer and they are like family to me."
You have had a great start to your college career, going 19-2 overall and 11-0 in dual matches. You also own the longest winning streak on the team at 16. Did you have any idea that you would have this type of success so early on in your college career?
"I really didn't know what to expect to be quite honest. I certainly didn't think that I would be undefeated in 2012 that's for sure. But I think the coaches have done a great job with me - and everybody really - stressing that we can only control what we can control and to take it one day at a time. I think that has been a real key for me and I want to keep that up. So I just think that my smooth transition from juniors to college is a combination of the high level we have at practice - we all push each other - and how well the coaches prepare us."
What's your mindset when you're out there on the court competing? Also, how much do you enjoy the team atmosphere as opposed to being out there by yourself?
"More than anything, I really try to just focus on what I'm doing rather than worrying about what's happening on the other side of the net. I know that if I execute to the best of my ability that I will put myself in a position to win. So when I'm out there it's all about staying focused, having a great attitude, concentration, good effort and focusing on execution. We work so hard during the week and I believe in that. But once you get out there in a dual match it's all about who wants it more. I think our team has just out-competed people. As far as the team atmosphere is concerned, I just love it. Junior tennis is very lonely. You see a huge difference when you get to college and that has been such a blast for me. There is nothing like going out there in a dual match and fighting with your teammates. It's single-handedly the best way to bond with a group of girls. It's a great feeling when you know that your teammates have your back."
What are some of the things you enjoy doing when you're not playing tennis?
"I love being outside and just spending time with my family. My Dad and I used to go fishing a lot. Also, I'm lucky to be in Los Angeles because the beach is one of my favorite places on earth. I also love college football and just watching sports in general. SportsCenter is my favorite TV show. Both of my parents went to LSU so we're huge LSU football fans, which can be problematic when you live in a state like Arkansas. We don't have anything against the Razorbacks, but we just don't cheer for them."