In 2016, three years into her Science, Technology and Society major at Stanford University, Carol Zhao decided that her final year could wait.
Having compiled a 76-16 overall record in college tennis competition, her dream of a pro career was calling - and so the start of 2017 found the Canadian, ranked a modest No.497, hauling herself off to Guadeloupe and Greece to scrap for points on the lowest rung of ITF tournaments.
The results didn't start pouring in immediately: Zhao failed to progress beyond the quarterfinals of seven $15,000 events. By August, she was still outside the Top 400. But a win over Veronica Cepede Royg - Zhao's fourth career Top 100 victory - in the qualifying of her home event, the Rogers Cup in Toronto, was a turning point. The following week saw the 22-year-old upset Yanina Wickmayer and Ons Jabeur to reach the semifinals of the ITF $100,000 event in Vancouver; and a trip to Japan garnered a runner-up spot in Tsukuba followed by a title in Nanao.
A return to Asia in November saw Zhao storm to the biggest title of her career at the ITF $100,000 tournament in Shenzhen - a result that rocketed her up the rankings to a career high of No.145 and sealed her first Grand Slam qualifying spot next month at the Australian Open.
From her off-season training base in Toronto, Zhao spoke to wtatennis.com about eight key reasons that she'll be one to watch in 2018.
1. Zhao sees her 2017 results as a pattern of gradual improvement.
"I didn't get off to the greatest start coming out of college," Zhao admits of her slow start to the year, in which she won just eight matches in her first seven tournaments and did not beat a Top 500 player until April.
"It wasn't easy to adjust to life on the tour full time, and to deal with all that comes with it. When you come from a life where it's quite multifaceted and you're doing a lot of things, all of a sudden tennis is your everything - which is great, it's a career, it's a job, but at that point losses mean more because it is the focal point in your life, and you're giving everything to it."
Patience and hard work paid off, though. Zhao ground out some hard-fought wins on American green clay in April and May, including a 7-5, 6-2 victory over No.172 Lizette Cabrera in Charleston, setting herself up for a stronger run of form. "The first half was building up to the second half in hindsight," she smiles.
— Rob Steckley (@robsteckley) June 30, 2017
2. Solidity is the cornerstone of her game.
Zhao, who is now based out of Toronto and who travels with Tennis Canada coaches, credits going back to basics for her improved results. "We were just trying to build my game from the ground up, to make sure I do the foundational things really well, and to be solid on court - I think that's the cornerstone of my my game," she says of her approach.
"There was a lot of mental work as well - that's obviously a huge aspect of the sport."
Day off in Greece
Eyes open against the breeze
Dark caves and countryside rain
Washing all my worries away. pic.twitter.com/UjKAxdOyqA
— carolzhao (@CarolZhao95) March 11, 2017
3. This approach has led to some of the biggest wins in Zhao's career.
Among Zhao's 54 singles victories in 2017 were her fourth and fifth career Top 100 wins (over Veronica Cepede Royg in Toronto and Ons Jabeur in Vancouver). But two others stick most in her mind. "Obviously the final of Shenzhen was a big one for me - it was the biggest match of my life thus far," Zhao recalls of the 7-5, 6-2 win over China's Liu Fangzhou.
Even more dramatic was her second round defeat in the same tournament of former Top 30 player Laura Robson 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 - in which Zhao clawed her way back from a 1-5 deficit in the deciding set. "Down 5-1 in the third no one is thinking, let's just go and win this match now," she laughs. "At that point I just remember becoming so relaxed and I started playing my best tennis - I went with the flow and just tried to play the right way."
Zhao emphasises, though, that a key to grinding her way up through the ITFs isn't just to focus on "big" matches. "There were a lot of matches that nobody sees, grinding in qualies where there are no spectators," she says. "I feel like you need a lot of intrinsic motivation to get through those matches."
When you find yourself match points down in both singles and doubles but somehow live to see another day ? pic.twitter.com/pdxxQvPbHx
— carolzhao (@CarolZhao95) April 25, 2017
4. She is used to following her own path - and sees her career as her version of a startup company.
In 2013, Zhao became the Australian Open girls' doubles champion alongside Ana Konjuh, and fans might have expected the highly touted Canadian to turn pro straight away. "Many people thought that would have been the best decision for me," she remembers now. "But I thought it was really important that I see something different while I was in my late teens, and I was very focused on education - especially at a place like Stanford where I would be surrounded by people who are constantly challenging me."
Three years later, it was the same determination to pursue her own path that led her into a pro career rather than completing her degree - even as she sees her Stanford peers graduate and move into the kind of jobs to which an Ivy League education opens doors.
"I see all my friends who graduated, and now they're living in nice cities with great jobs, living with friends, that kind of thing - and of course there's no job security [in pro tennis]," admits Zhao. "But I've always had this passion and this dream - it really stems from way back and it's not something I ever considered giving up on. For me, I look at it like I'm doing my own startup - there are risks involved but hopefully potential for a lot of rewards."
5. College made her a more well-rounded person - and has already given her some big-match experience.
"I'm a more mature person after college, which helps a lot when it comes to being out on the tour by yourself," reflects Zhao. Her 2017 travels were partly based on a natural curiosity to see the world, taking her to the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in January, Greece in March and Japan in August.
A desire to learn was also at the root of her choice of major, Science, Technology and Society - which she still intends to complete, and maybe go on to pursue, once her tennis career is done. "My concentration within that was product design at the intersection of technology and business," Zhao expounds. "I was really interested in acquiring the technical skills of computer science, engineering, stuff like that, but also acquiring critical thinking skills in the social sciences. It was a very interdisciplinary major and something I would be interested to pursue later on, maybe in product management."
College tennis has also given Zhao some memorable on-court moments that stand her in good stead as she moves towards the WTA Tour - most notably helping the Stanford Cardinals to their 18th national championship victory in 2016. "It was televised on CBS and it definitely had an atmosphere, it was very lively - it brings out the best in you a lot of times," reminisces Zhao. "On the ITF Tour there's not much atmosphere - you have to create it for yourself and get through it. It's a very humbling experience and it makes people like me very hungry to shoot for bigger goals, bigger tournaments and bigger stages."
6. Zhao's fellow Stanford alumnae on tour have been giving her advice already.
Together with Nicole Gibbs and Kristie Ahn, Zhao brings the total of Stanford alumnae in the Top 200 to three - the most of any US college. The former teammates have kept in touch over the years, despite pursuing their pro dreams at different times. "Our relationship is a very special one, and not one that's easily replicated," explains Zhao.
Gibbs, the most successful of the trio to date, has also been a helpful source of advice to her younger friend. "Nicole actually told me once about branding things in a different way," says Zhao. "Sometimes on the tour you'll make everything out to be such a big deal - but in the grand scheme of things it's really not. We are very lucky to be doing what we're doing and to have the opportunity to even pursue our dreams. Nicole is always saying, 'Cosmic irrelevance, cosmic irrelevance!'"
"Onsen"-ing my way to the semifinals in Nanao !! I swear I'm playing some tennis out here too ????? pic.twitter.com/rFe4dPDGoB
— carolzhao (@CarolZhao95) September 1, 2017
7. Zhao is ready to join the ranks of accomplished musicians on tour, too.
As if athletic and academic prowess wasn't enough, Zhao is a talented musician, too. Classically trained in the piano for as long as she's been learning tennis, these days she's inspired by alternative pop and spends her time off-court working on singer-songwriter compositions.
One of those was "Concrete", a heartfelt acoustic track inspired by life on tour - which took the tennis world by storm when Zhao revealed it in March. "Writing and singing helps me stay relaxed - and it gives me an outlet other than tennis creatively," she says now.
— carolzhao (@CarolZhao95) March 20, 2017
8. The Top 100 is Zhao's immediate goal for next year - but she isn't too hung up on specific targets.
With direct entry to Australian Open qualifying sealed and just 18 points to defend until May, Zhao is perfectly set to make a push for elite territory at the start of next year. "I guess that's everybody's goal," she laughs.
But she also takes a big-picture view of her career - one that helped when she failed to meet her goal this year of playing Grand Slam qualifying in 2017. "At the end of the day I had I felt like I had more to offer and more potential that I wanted to excavate," she shrugs now. "The only thing to do in that circumstance was just to keep working and hope that it turns around." Zhao recalibrated her goal to set her sights on the Australian Open - and accomplished it within weeks.
"Really, my goal is just to keep improving my game and working hard," she says. "I really believe that's a direct reflection of what your results will be."
? First 100K title ?
It’s been a long way here since January and I owe this to the small group of people whose belief in me never wavered even when mine did. There are still many, many more miles to go but I’m so so grateful for you, and for this. ??? pic.twitter.com/RnuaQnCQAt
— carolzhao (@CarolZhao95) November 12, 2017