By Mike McIntyre
The No. 1 ranking in Canadian women’s tennis traded hands again recently with 23 year old Carol Zhao of Richmond Hill assuming the top spot on June 11th. The idea that Zhao could reach the top of her country’s rankings would not have even been considered a year ago. Then ranked 408th in the WTA rankings, Zhao had just recently committed to turning pro and was only starting to learn the ins and outs of life on the road. When I congratulated her on the achievement a week before it became official, her reaction revealed that the accomplishment was still sinking in.
“Oh, thanks – I mean, (laughter) it’s ah, it’s I guess the first time someone’s said that to me!”
After taking a moment to put her new ranking into context, Zhao elaborated about what this moment means to her and how it fits-in with her overall goals as a professional tennis player.
“Quite honestly it’s not something that I’ve spent so much time thinking about. It’s not one of the main goals – to become the No. 1. Obviously it’s a nice title and it’s an honor to be able to represent Canada that way but I would say my goals have been more on personal development and seeing progress for myself and wherever that happens to put me in terms of the Canadian ranking, is not something I can really control, you know what I mean? So I’m just taking it as a bonus and hopefully I’ll be able to represent well going forward.”
If tennis fans here in Canada are surprised to see Zhao’s quick ascension, don’t worry, she can relate as well. “Twelve months ago that would have been a very far, far fetched thing for me. I think I was maybe around 400-500 just coming out of college. So you can see it’s not something I have thought about a whole lot. But it’s definitely a nice thing to have happened.”
Making the decision to take a hiatus from her education at Stanford in order to pursue her chances full-time on the WTA was a big decision for Zhao but one that is clearly working out well for her so far as she just recently hit her career-high ranking of 131st on the WTA. I asked her about the motivation for initially going the College route and she revealed that it was more about personal exploration than anything to do with tennis. She fully intends to go back and complete her final year of her degree in science technology and society.
“I mean looking back obviously I have no regrets,” Zhao explained. “It was probably the best years of my life, the greatest experience. For me, it was very much like a personal decision not so much a tennis based decision. I really wanted that experience, I wanted to expose myself to a new environment when I was 18, 19, 20 and learn a lot of new things and see the world in a different way and all that kind of stuff. I think in turn that’s helped me with my tennis and my level maturity and all that understanding of what I do. I’m definitely glad that I chose that route.”
Photo by Mike McIntyre
The transition has been substantial from playing on the College circuit but Zhao seems to be adjusting just fine. She equates life on the pro tour to running your own business, complete with its own set of risks and rewards.
“It’s tough to manage it all but it’s part of the job. Managing your career, I kind of look at it as managing your own enterprise, as if I was doing a start-up or something. You are your own company and you’re trying to make the right investments, make the right decisions and take the right risks so that you get a good payoff.”
The payoffs for Zhao began late during the summer of 2017. In mid-August she made the semi-finals of the $100,000 ITF event in Vancouver taking out former Canadian No. 1 Aleksandra Wozniak, Yanina Wickmayer and Ons Jabeur in the process. She then made the finals of a smaller ITF event in Tsukuba, Japan before taking things one step further and winning a similar-sized tournament on the other side of the country in Nanao. Zhao then returned to Canada where she played .500 level tennis in five events on home soil. She then made the decision to continue her season into November by returning to Asia and rediscovered her success there by winning the $100,000 event in Shenzhen, China. That saw her add 140 ranking points and jump from 221 to 150th in the world.
Zhao attributes the sudden surge to finding her groove on the road and also starting to develop an increased sense of confidence in her abilities on the court as a full time tennis player.
“I think overall just a lot more awareness of myself as a tennis player because it was quite new to me, becoming a pro full time and developing a sense of my identity on the court and working with the right people, I think that brought out a lot of the potential that I had last year. Also just really believing that you belong. I think once you have a couple of good results that are indicative of what you can do it’s really promising and at a certain point you start to believe that you belong at a higher level. I think that’s what happened with me.”
For Canadian tennis fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their new No. 1, Zhao will undoubtedly be featured later this summer in Montreal at the Rogers Cup. A main draw wildcard should be a given this time around thanks for her solid movements up the rankings. Zhao is definitely a very proud Canadian and seems to be the glue of the female Tennis Canada contingent. She has a positive relationship with many of her Canadian peers. A few examples include pairing-up with Gaby Dabrowski to win gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games, playing doubles with the younger Charlotte Robillard-Millette last summer in Toronto and most recently where she was seen catching a Taylor Swift concert with fellow Canuck Genie Bouchard in London. I asked her about her bond with her fellow Canadian pros and Zhao downplayed her role as a unifying factor amongst the group despite the fact that she is obviously a team player.
“It’s not something that I guess i intentionally do but I think the camaraderie is getting a lot better and we’re all great friends. The team atmosphere is great. Actually a lot of my closest personal friends on tour are from the Canadian women’s side. I guess we’re lucky to have that bond and with a lot of these girls I’ve also grown up with them and we’ve known each other for so many years that it’s definitely like a deeper relationship, so it’s cool.”
Speaking of Tennis Canada, after the comments that previous Canadian No. 1 Françoise Abanda had made last month about how race factored into her treatment as a tennis player, I had to ask Zhao if she had ever felt anything similar growing up. She didn’t hesitate to address the question head-on.
“I’m a first generation Chinese Canadian living and growing up in Canada. It’ something that I lived with growing up and in the tennis world I feel like your accomplishments kind of speak for themselves more than in some other fields. It’s never really bothered me that much or maybe it’s just because of what I identify as already and I’m comfortable with what I identify as. That being said, I think my message is just that I don’t think that any lack of fanfare has been intrinsically motivated by my race or my identity.”
She continued by stating that, “I’m comfortable enough in my identity to not feel the need for external validation because of my race…so I’m just really trying to become the best tennis player I can be and the best representative of my country, myself, my family and that’s really the most important thing for me.”
While most athletes probably look forward to ending an interview as quickly as possible, Zhao interjected as I was about to end our call to clarify how she felt about becoming Canada’s new No. 1. She added that, “I just wanted to clarify if I wasn’t like super clear before on the No. 1 thing, I’m obviously happy and I’m excited and honored to be in this position. The overwhelming thing I guess I feel now is to just try to continue producing results that are deserving of that position. So that’s really my focus.”
Whether she is able to hold onto the position throughout the rest of 2018 or not, it definitely appears that Zhao has the right outlook on her priorities. Her message on the merits of hard work and earning your accomplishments is also one that make her an ideal No. 1 player and role model for young Canadian tennis fans.