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Change in culture leading women's tennis back to winning ways

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Freshman Nadia Ravita has helped Kentucky get off to a 4-2 start heading into their match with No. 54 Indiana this weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Freshman Nadia Ravita has helped Kentucky get off to a 4-2 start heading into their match with No. 54 Indiana this weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Like the autumn leaves, change in the UK women's tennis team started last fall.

Kentucky tennis players were fed up. They would no longer accept losing as an option.

"At the beginning of the year, we laid out our goals for the season and we fell short a little bit," said sophomore Grace Trimble.  "Now that we are holding each other accountable, we know that we can perform at the level to beat teams like Ohio State on their home court and beyond that."

The Wildcats are off to 4-2 start including a win over No. 55 Ohio State on the road last weekend. In the not-so-distant history of this program, a win over the No. 55 team in the country would be routine, but as head coach Carlos Drada looks to rebuild this program, last weekend's victory served as a byproduct of all the hard work his team has put in.

"That was kind of a game-changing win," said Drada. "It's going to help our momentum. I can see our ladies; they've never played against that kind of adversity."

That adversity was sparked by their loss of the doubles point at the beginning of the match, placing themselves behind the eight ball from the start. And playing on the road against a higher-ranked, more experienced team with a raucous crowd on top of them.

The Wildcats would need four singles victories to come back and clinch a win.

And they did, 4-3.

"They were able manage all that adversity and everybody on the court competed," said Drada. "We had chances to win all six singles matches, and that is rare when you're the underdog and are going against a more mature team."

While Kentucky's attitude had changed going into the season, the win helped validate the efforts that they Cats have made in the preseason and in these first six matches of 2013. Drada has talked extensively about bringing constant and consistent effort and focus to the practice court every single day.

Now, especially after seeing the fruits of their labor manifest on the court against Ohio State, UK players are starting to buy in to what Drada and the staff are selling.

"It's great to see that everyone is invested into what we're doing," said Drada. "In years before, they were not buying into it fully, but right now, just from their actions, they don't mind asking what they can do to get better. Some of them are asking that for the first time.

"It's just a great feeling. I know it's early in the season, but they are going to do what they can to have the best season possible for this team."

Part of the attitude adjustment can be directly attributed to the talent adjustment on the roster. Drada brought in a couple of highly touted freshmen to come in and compete immediately.

Nadia Ravita and Kirsten Lewis have been consistent performers for the Wildcats so far in their rookie seasons and have made immediate contributions. Ravita, the No. 67 player in the country, took down Ohio State's No. 53 Kelsey Dieters in the top match of singles competition. Their early play and ability to buy into the program has provided for a seamless transition.

"Nadia and Kirsten have added so much," said Trimble. "We know that when they step on the court, they are going to give 110 percent and come out with a win. Nadia has been wonderful, and Kirsten has too, to our team dynamic and they have just brought us all to a higher level."

The push to change hasn't only been an effort from Drada, but it's been a mission of the players to hold themselves accountable for their actions.  Times are changing in Lexington, even if that means the Cats are looking for the type of success this program has had in the past.

"We are starting to develop a culture on our team where it's about winning and about doing it for our teammates," said Trimble. "It's happened in our relationships with each other and how we push each other to hold each other accountable, and that has made the difference."

What might be most impressive and most important to Kentucky's culture is that this is a very young team. With just one senior and three juniors on the squad, UK doesn't have to rely on the way things used to be, but more the legacy the Cats want to leave for the future. The leadership hasn't come primarily from upperclassmen, but it's been a collective effort that's helped create the change for UK tennis.

"We have captains on our team, but everyone is acting as captains," said Drada. "Right now, we have two freshmen, and they're still very young, but they're committing to what we're trying to do and they're really following through on the court, and we're hoping they can maintain that constant focus because they're doing a great job with that."

As players continue to buy in and success follows, results like last weekend will continue to happen. Since that win, Drada can already sense a change in the environment around his team on the practice courts. The challenge now is to maintain that same focus heading into this weekend's matches with Indiana and Northern Kentucky.

The Wildcats can't spend too much time being excited about one win over Ohio State with No. 54 Indiana waiting in the wings.

"We cannot just celebrate and (the season's) done," said Drada. "You celebrate that one day for a bit and then you're ready to move forward and get better."

If Kentucky has moved on from last weekend with the intent of carrying that momentum back home, the Wildcats will give themselves a chance for more big victories this spring.

"Our players, if they perform to their capabilities, we're going to have the best chance to do well," said Drada. "Having a real crowd this weekend is going to help us a lot. What I'm looking for is that focused energy that is going to help us give our best effort."

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