By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Kata Szekely has come a long way over the past three years.
The 5-foot-6 junior on the Tennessee women’s tennis team has done that both literally and figuratively.
Entering Friday’s match-up with Ole Miss in Oxford, Szekely has posted a 16-5 singles record on the year, including eight victories against ranked opponents this season. She also achieved the highest singles ranking of her collegiate career on Feb. 16, checking in at No. 37 nationally.
“I think I have improved a lot since my first two years here,” Szekely said. “The key has probably been hard work. The whole team has really worked hard every day at practice.”
In part due to Szekely’s efforts, the Lady Vols are 10-4 on the 2012 season and have achieved a No. 5 ITA ranking as a team.
And though things seemingly come easy to Szekely now, it hasn’t always been that way. The results she is seeing now are the byproduct of, more than anything, perseverance.
That’s the rough estimate of the distance between Szekely’s hometown of Szekesfehervar, Hungary, and Knoxville, Tenn., where she currently attends college.
One of her first activities as a youngster was dance lessons. It was there she fell in love with rhythm and athleticism, two characteristics that have served her especially well on the tennis court.
“I was very little when I was dancing and really the only reason I was doing it was just to become more athletic,” Szekely said. “I gained a little bit more reason and it helped with rhythm, but it was just fun for me, being a kid.”
At approximately seven years of age, she decided to test her skills on the tennis court.
“I started playing at a small summer tennis camp and was just going to play for a year,” Szekely said. “I kind of liked every aspect of it. As a kid, I just liked playing. I never really liked drilling. I always liked to play points and just have fun with others.”
Mike Patrick got a pretty strong recommendation.
It was former student-athlete Zsofia Zubor who told the Tennessee co-head coach about a player back in her home country who would be a good fit for his program. Szekely had played with the Hungarian National Team in 2003 and 2004 and had won bronze at the 2005 Hungarian Women’s Championship.
So Patrick decided to see for himself.
“We had a girl on our team from Hungary who knew Kata, and I had gone over there three years before to recruit her,” Patrick said. “She told me that Kata was going to be a good player, so I watched her play and got to meet with her. When it comes to international kids, it’s usually who you know that gets you to that point. For us, it’s very important that we go over and meet the family, and see what type of kid they are.”
That visit made all the difference in the world to Szekely.
“There were a couple of schools that recruited me, but what made the difference at Tennessee was the coaches,” Szekely said. “Mike came to Hungary to watch me play and it just made a huge difference. I could see that they cared about me.”
It would be for that same reason that Szekely was able to adjust to life in another country, which wasn’t at all an easy transition.
“At the beginning, it was really hard to leave my friends and family back home,” she said. “It was the first time I had left home for a longer period of time. But I think I kind of found a new family here. My teammates were great and the coaches helped me a lot. The transition was kind of easy after a couple of weeks because they made it feel like home.”
Patrick agreed, saying that Szekely’s adjustment went at an accelerated pace both on and off the court, which resulted in a nod to the SEC Freshman Academic Honor Roll in 2009-10.
“It’s always tough when they first get here,” Patrick said. “Her native language was Hungarian, but she spoke pretty good English. But still, to be in a classroom and understand English at that level takes a little bit of work. She adjusted in the classroom and has done excellent in school.”
Szekely played sparingly her freshman year, due in part to a minor injury, before recording a career-best 18 singles wins as a sophomore in 2010-11. She saw action primarily at her team’s No. 4 spot in singles and was part of a No. 3 doubles tandem with Jennifer Meredith that logged 18 consecutive doubles victory and 20 of their final 21.
For the team, it marked the third consecutive season in which the Lady Vols would advance to the championship match of the Southeastern Conference Tournament before falling in the title tilt. That provided Szekely and her teammates added motivation.
“I just wanted to improve to help the team win more matches,” Szekely said. “There were a couple of important moments in the past two years that were motivating factors. We’ve been in the finals of the SEC Tournament for the past three years. We would like to win it this year. The SEC has really good teams and it is a definite goal of ours to win the conference.”
Patrick says while winning the conference is certainly something to which his team aspires, the overarching goal is simply constant improvement.
“We’re just trying to be our best every year,” Patrick said. “We just work hard every day; if it leads to something, that’s great. Hopefully that will lead to us being competitive in the conference and nationally.”
Szekely’s long journey away from home has had another important impact on her life. The constant travel schedule that has surrounded her tennis career has given her insight into her future career.
She is majoring in hotel, restaurant and tourism management with aspirations to work in a hotel. Szekely knows first-hand what the client needs are when it comes to lodging and frequent travelers.
“I just like dealing with other people and I like the customer service aspect of it; trying to satisfy customer needs,” Szekely said. “Every single time I travel, I have always been interested in the hotel part and where we stayed on these trips, so that’s what I decided to major in. I have always thought I’d like to coach for a bit but, eventually, I’d like to work in hotel management.”
For the Tennessee junior, it appears that her rock-solid work-ethic will allow her to make any goals become realities.
“She is just a real quality young lady,” Patrick said. “She works hard, does what we tell her to do and does it right away. She’s the kind of player that you want – she’s good in the classroom and she’s a good teammate. She’s doing the work, enjoying it and getting better. She’s motivated and I’m looking forward to seeing how far it can take her.”