It’s been a very tough few years for Canadian Carol Zhao, who bypassed her final year at Stanford to try the pro tour but has been stymied by both a persistent elbow injury and the pandemic.
But the Toronto native, now 26, took an encouraging step Sunday when she won a $25,000 ITF in Incheon, Korea.
Zhao defeated Mayuka Aikawa of Japan in the final. And she won the tournament without losing a set; it included an upset over No. 1 seed Na-Lae Han in the semifinals.
She’ll be just outside the top 300 when the points go up – and it should do wonders for her confidence.
WHILE WE’RE AT IT: Quebec’s Gabriel Diallo, 20, won his first pro title Sunday at the men’s $25K ITF in East Lansing, Michigan.
Ranked No. 943 (with 12 ATP Tour ranking points) coming in, he’ll earn 25 points for the title.
That will mean a jump of than 300 spots in the rankings, when they’re added to his calculation.
The former Canadian No. 1
At one point only a few years ago, Zhao was briefly the No. 1 player in Canada.
That seems odd now, with Leylah Fernandez in the top echelons and Bianca Andreescu’s recent accomplishments.
But it was just before that, as she, Françoise Abanda and a struggling Genie Bouchard kind of batted that title back and forth for a few months.
Zhao reached a career high of No. 131 right about this time four years ago, when she played the Wimbledon qualifying.
When we ran into her after she lost her first-round match at Roehampton, she had just had a cortisone shot in a problematic right elbow.
The Canadian won two ITF singles titles (including a $100K) in 2017. She also won four ITF doubles titles that year, including $60Ks in Canada with Bianca Andreescu and Ellen Perez as partners.
But as the elbow woes kicked in, she lost in the first round of 14-of-18 tournaments during a stretch in 2018, and didn’t play from Nov. 2018 through to June 2019.
She tried to come back. And then she was out again from Sept. 2019 until Jan. 2021.
In short, three years of her career were basically taken away by the elbow issue (and COVID). Throughout, a lot of time and effort was dispensed trying to figure out exactly what the problem was, and how to fix it.
Since her return, which has taken place mostly on the ITF circuit, she has had moments.
Zhao reached the final round of qualifying a year ago at Roland Garros, losing to the solid Lara Arruabarrena after beating Viktoria Kuzmova and surviving a frozen-tundra, late-night first-rounder over Valeria Savinykh.
She also qualified at the WTA tournament in Rabat, Morocco in April.
Zhao a former top junior
Zhao was one of the products of Tennis Canada’s national program a decade ago, along with Abanda and Erin Routliffe (who now plays for New Zealand and has become a top-50 doubles player).
When you look at the list of players to beat her in the juniors, it’s a roster of players who have been successful: Belinda Bencic, Elise Mertens, Taylor Townsend, Yulia Putintseva, Anhelina Kalinina, Bouchard, Katerina Siniakova, Jennifer Brady.
She was – in Open Court’s humble opinion – by far the most complete, technically sound player the Tennis Canada program has ever produced.
(Also – she can sing and she’s brilliant, too. But you can’t even hate her for it because she’s a super lady).
Zhao reached No. 9 in the ITF juniors rankings, and won the 2013 Australian Open girls’ doubles title with Ana Konjuh.
She also won Roehampton that year, leading up to junior Wimbledon, with Barbora Krejcikova.
Hopefully, with the return of tournaments to Canada – and the National Bank Open and Granby WTA coming up this summer – Zhao can finally get her career back on a roll.