Back in the summer of 2018, Bianca Andreescu was not yet a household name in Canada; and Carol Zhao was the country’s No. 1 ranked female player.
But a lot can change in less than two years. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of a new and bona fide superstar in Andreescu, who shocked the sports world in 2019 and captured the US Open in the process.
And at the beginning of 2020, 17-year-old Leylah Fernandez showed signs of making a breakthrough of her own.
Then, of course, there’s the COVID-19 pandemic which forced the cancellation of all tennis tournaments since early March and changed life as we know it.
One thing that many take as a certainty is that tennis will be back once this pandemic ends – if not before.
But what sort of comeback can Canadian tennis fans expect from Zhao, who turns 25 in June? The answer to that question ultimately depends on how she bounces back from her injury rehab.
The irony is that her injury woes began around the same time she assumed the distinction as the top ranked female player in Canada.
From June 11, 2018 to July 23, 2018, Zhao held a WTA ranking that floated in the 130s which was good enough to make her Canada’s number one female player. At the time, Eugenie Bouchard had been struggling with her form and was in danger of falling out of the top 200.
While Zhao’s name might not be familiar to most, she did have an impressive list of accomplishments during her days as a junior standout and as a student-athlete at Stanford University.
Back in January of 2013, Zhao and her doubles partner, Ana Konjuh of Croatia, captured the junior girls’ doubles title at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Also in January of 2013, Zhao climbed to world No. 9 in the junior girls’ singles rankings. And at the conclusion of the year, she was recognized as Tennis Canada’s 2013 Junior Player of the Year.
The 5′ 6″ Zhao from Vaughan, Ontario trained at the National Training Centre in Montreal alongside Canada’s best and brightest juniors. Other notable stars to have trained at the NTC include Milos Raonic, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Bianca Andreescu – just to name a few.
However, when the opportunity first presented itself, she decided not to turn pro – but instead, accepted a full scholarship to Stanford University.
In her sophomore year, she was the NCAA Division I singles runner up. In the summer of 2015, Zhao teamed up with doubles specialist, Gaby Dabrowski, to win the gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Toronto.
In her junior year, Zhao helped Stanford capture the 2016 NCAA DI championship–and subsequently decided to turn pro afterwards.
Zhao acknowledged life on the WTA Tour as a full time professional was an eye opening experience.
“I went from a very multi-faceted life in school to a relatively more focused and specific life on the Tour. In that time, I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs already; the Tour is relentless and constantly pushes you to exhume more from yourself.” said Zhao in reflection after her first year as a professional.
Zhao observed the life of a tennis pro to be ‘nomadic.’
“You’re constantly on the move and don’t adhere to a normal person’s calendar. It demands a lot of you physically and mentally,” she pointed out.
“But it’s an incredibly rewarding journey if you let it be and we’re all very fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue our dreams.”
Zhao biggest victory as a pro came in November of 2017 when she captured the $100,000 Shenzhen ITF event in China.
“I did not go into the tournament expecting to win; I was really just focused on each match at a time, trying to develop my game and play to improve. Once I was into the finals I was feeling very comfortable with how I was playing and it all just came together really well,” said Zhao, who defeated Liu Fangzhou in straight sets to capture the title.
The big title victory to close out 2017 meant the first year pro jumped from being ranked around the 500s to inside the top 150. The future was looking bright for the then-22-year-old.
However, injuries in the middle of 2018 would put a halt to her dreams of rising further up the rankings.
At the 2018 Rogers Cup, a disappointed Zhao spoke about the specifics of her injury after a straight sets loss to Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands.
“I’ve been battling this elbow injury for about like three months. I took some time off. I’ve been working really hard on rehab and stuff,” said Zhao in her post match presser.
“Yeah, I wasn’t able to perform physically 100 per cent, which is a bit of a shame.”
Zhao has continued to be hampered by the injury over the course of her 2019 season.
“I’ve had some tough moments in recovery lately, not gonna lie. Despite all our efforts in the past year or so, my team and I have had to revisit our rehab and the goal remains to achieve pain-free motion,” Zhao tweeted out in November of 2019.
The young Canadian took some time this week to update LWOT about her current status.
“Fortunately, the rehab days seem to be behind me as I’m feeling really good physically and had been training with no restrictions,” she said.
“Unfortunately, the timing obviously hasn’t been ideal as now the tour is placed on hold. All I can do now is to try to stay positive and stay ready for when we will be able to resume again.”
Based on recent updates, it doesn’t appear that there will be tennis until at least September – as Tennis Canada recently announced the cancellation of the Coupe Rogers, which was scheduled for early August in Montreal.
“I think it’s been challenging for us given the performance-based prize money allocation that doesn’t allow us to produce any income at this time, as well as the global nature of our sport that would plausibly put us on pause until there is a vaccine or some safeguard that would allow for constant international travel,” pointed out the thoughtful 24-year-old Stanford alum.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has left the world with more questions than answers. One thing that many consider a certainty is that the outbreak will subside at some point and tennis will return.
And when it does return, Zhao says she will be in search of better days ahead.
“I continue to be highly motivated and ambitious and want to keep pushing myself to become the best player I can be,” said the former Canadian no. 1.
“I’ve always believed in my abilities and want to hit the ground running once the tour resumes. After my experiences with injury and rehab, I think I’m more mature, self-aware, and better equipped to handle both the physical and emotional demands of the Tour.”
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