On a Saturday night late in February, Stanford head coach Lele Forood called her team together for a special announcement. It had been a rough start to the season for the Cardinal, whose two matches against top-25 teams had resulted in losses. Having started the season ranked seventh in the country before quickly falling to 16th, the team was getting ready to take on arch-rival No. 7 Florida the next day.
If the Cardinal did not feel at full strength, there was a reason: Carol Zhao, Stanford’s No. 1 player, had taken a break from collegiate play for the professional circuit during winter quarter. Zhao was not expected to rejoin Stanford’s lineup for another month. Meanwhile, the Cardinal had to contend with the Gators in just over 12 hours.
Forood surprised the team with welcome news: Zhao — who that day had finished as doubles runner-up at a $25,000 professional tournament in Rancho Santa Fe, California — was hustling back to the Farm to join Stanford’s lineup versus the Gators.
“We were all super fired up, because we found out the night before [that Zhao would rejoin the lineup],” junior Taylor Davidson said. “I think that momentum carried a lot into the match, because all of sudden our lineup was shifted and we were really confident.”
Zhao defeated Florida’s No. 12 Brooke Austin 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, and the Stanford squad notched its biggest win yet, joining forces to pull off a dramatic 4-3 upset.
Zhao, a junior, established herself as an “X factor” for Stanford since her arrival on the Farm, playing primarily at the No. 3 spot as a freshman during the 2013-14 season. Zhao reached a final national ranking of No. 22 in her freshman season.
As a sophomore, Zhao notched a 21-2 dual match record while playing at Stanford’s No. 1 spot and was the 2015 NCAA singles runner-up, earning a final national ranking of No. 2. Playing as Stanford’s No. 1 for latter half of this season, Zhao defeated six top-25 collegiate opponents and notched an 11-3 record. (Zhao is currently the No. 25-ranked collegiate player nationally, although that ranking may have been impacted by her absence for the first half of the season.)
Zhao arrived on the Farm in 2013 — along with blue-chips Davidson and Caroline Doyle — as part of one of Stanford’s best recruiting classes in recent history. The trio became the team’s core over the past three years, taking over the top three spots in the lineup their sophomore year.
In junior tennis, she rose to No. 9 in the world and won the Australian Open junior doubles in 2013. She is poised to extend her tennis success beyond the Farm as well: Zhao has notched wins over three top-100 WTA players and made her Fed Cup debut in doubles play on Canada’s team versus Belarus in February.
Although she is a junior, Zhao plans to pursue a professional tennis career and will not return to Stanford for the 2016-15 season.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONS!!! So proud my heart’s bursting. Couldn’t have imagined ending my Stanford career another way. This one’s for you, Card.
— carolzhao (@CarolZhao95) May 24, 2016
While Zhao’s individual results are outstanding, she has distinguished herself by her ability to support the success of the team as a whole. This season, Stanford went 14-1 when Zhao was in the lineup.
“Having Carol back is awesome,” freshman Caroline Lampl said. “We were doing pretty well throughout the season, but honestly having her back is like having another family member back.”
It’s a testament to Stanford’s team ethos that Zhao’s return to the lineup was so successful. Early in the season, local journalists asked head coach Lele Forood if she worried about Zhao’s return upsetting the team’s dynamic: What about possible tension between teammates, since Zhao’s return inevitably knocked another Cardinal out of the six-person lineup? Who would partner together in doubles, since Zhao’s former doubles partner Taylor Davidson was now enjoying an outstanding doubles streak with teammate Caroline Doyle?
Those doubts were silenced when Zhao made her surprise return to the Farm for the dual match against top-ranked Florida — and the Stanford squad showed the first sign of momentum that culminated in a national title.
“Getting her back, we were able to get the wins we needed to get in the top 16, finally,” said head coach Lele Forood. “She’s a great player. She’s a great leader.”
Zhao suffered a rare loss, 6-4, 7-5, to Oklahoma State’s No. 46 Katarina Adamovic in the NCAA final. However, her ability to keep constant pressure on Adamovic until the very end helped keep Stanford in the match. Despite Zhao’s loss, her Stanford teammates rallied to clinch the program’s first NCAA Championship since 2012 in a thrilling 4-3 victory.
Stanford’s ability to clinch a national title, even without a win from Zhao, indicates the well-roundedness of the team which Zhao and her cohort of fellow juniors have styled over the last three years.
“She is such a role model,” Lampl said of Zhao. “As an underclassman, and for everyone in general, can learn from her. She’s just a great person to have around. We love her.”
Contact Alexa Corse at corsea ‘at’ stanford.edu.