The spring season for the Stanford women's tennis team officially began on January 25 against Santa Clara. The Cardinal coaches and players, however, believe the season just got under way.
Last weekend was the real start for the Cardinal, which welcomed back junior All-American Carol Zhao to full-time status for the remainder of the season.
Zhao spent the fall and early spring quarter playing on the USTA pro circuit as part of her preparation with the Canadian National Team and her future as a professional.
"I'm very happy to be back," she said Wednesday.
Stanford coach Lele Forood echoed that.
"It feels really good to have all our players available," she said. "After seeing what we did in February (a 4-3 win over then-No. 7 Florida), we feel a lot is possible."
Zhao flew up from a tournament in Southern California that weekend to play for Stanford in the win over Florida, ranked No. 6 this week.
"That wasn't planned," she said.
Zhao was back in the lineup full-time last weekend in 7-0 victories over Colorado and Utah
in Pac-12 Conference action.
Thus, Stanford is unbeatable (3-0) when Zhao is in the lineup.
"It would be nice if that was true all the time," she said.
Stanford is 6-4 overall and 2-1 in conference without Zhao this season. Currently, the Cardinal is 9-4 and 4-1, respectively.
Stanford takes a No. 18 national ranking into the stretch run hosting No. 38 Oregon on Saturday (noon) before traveling to Berkeley on Sunday to face No. 1 Cal (4-0, 15-0) in a televised (Pac-12 Networks) match at 11 a.m. After that are matches at Washington and Washington State before a final home match against Cal on April 16 at noon.
"The toughest part is still to come," Zhao said of the remainder of the season. "There's a lot to look forward to."
Zhao spent last year as the team's No. 1 singles player, winning 35 of 40 matches and going 22-3 against nationally ranked opponents. She lost in the NCAA singles finale and ended the year ranked No. 2 in the country.
Her stats aren't as impressive this season, for obvious reasons, but her impact on the team is just as important.
While she was gone, fellow juniors Taylor Davidson and Caroline Doyle moved up to play No. 1 and 2 singles and senior Krista Hardebeck moved into the stadium at No. 3 and is playing very well. Zhao's absence also allowed more playing time and experience for freshmen like Caroline Lampl, Melissa Lord and Kimberly Yee, the latter two teaming at No. 2 doubles.
With Zhao back, the lineup is stronger. But, now there are some logistical problems for Forood.
"We have to make a determination of who our starters are," Forood said, referring to No. 2 doubles and No. 6 singles.
Lord and Yee have been alternating at No. 6. Lord won against Colorado and Yee against Utah.
And, said Forood, "Clearly, Carol has to play doubles. It's a little big awkward. We have three players vying for No. 2 doubles. (But) You can't put anyone with Carol's ability on the bench."
Bottom line, it's a good problem to have. Without Zhao, Stanford suffered three 4-3 losses (Mississippi, Arizona State and Pepperdine). Had Zhao been present, the Cardinal might have won all three.
"It's possible," Forood said. "But, we knew of the situation (Zhao's absence) last summer. Now's the time to do something about it."
Zhao, of course, will have a say in Stanford's push to host first- and second-round NCAA matches on May 13-14 and make another run at a national crown.
Zhao brings a wealth of experience she gained during her time away, which included playing for Canada in a Federation Cup match against Belarus (a loss) last month. She also played in six USTA pro circuit tournaments. Two were in Mexico and the rest in California.
"I've been doing this (playing tennis) for a long time," said the 20-year-old. "Nothing (on the pro circuit) came as a shock. I was just concentrating on developing my game as much as I could in three months. I want to keep it going down the road."
Zhao said perhaps the most important thing she learned while being gone was "there's a lot more work to be done."
She's currently ranked No. 323 in the world in single and No. 168 in doubles by the Women's Tennis Association. For comparison sake, the last Stanford woman to turn pro early, Nicole Gibbs in 2013, is No. 74 in the world in singles and No. 124 in doubles. She left Stanford following her junior year, after winning an NCAA singles title.
"I'm committed," Zhao said of improving and moving up the ranks. "It's all about finding your strengths and weaknesses. The mental part of it is so important, too. And, the higher you go (in the rankings), the more important it is."
Has learning the ropes on the pro circuit made Zhao a better player?
"I'd like to think so," she said. "I'd like to believe I'm a hard worker. I've made a effort to do that."
Zhao returns with that work ethic and a drive to finish her college career on a high note.
"We have a great lineup this year," she said. "And we have great depth. It's really all about the effort . . . We know what it takes."
As for her final shot?
"I'm incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to go to Stanford," she said. "Stanford has a history of winning national titles and that has always been the goal. I'd like to think that we have a good shot at doing just that."
NOTES: Saturday's match against Oregon represents Senior Day, with Hardebeck and Lindsey Kostas to be honored in a ceremony prior to the doubles competition. Hardebeck and Kostas were members of Stanford's 2013 NCAA championship team and have been part of 69 victories on The Farm during their career . . . Stanford has won 10 of the past 14 matches with Cal. Sunday's match will not count in the Pac-12 standings, but the rematch in April will . . . Stanford's earlier rainout with USC will only be made up if it impacts the conference standings.