The star-studded freshman class rounded out in January as the Blue Devils welcomed their eighth and final member to the already talented 2018 team.
Ranked No. 12 in TennisRecruiting.net’s Class of 2018, freshman Hannah Zhao graduated high school early in order to enroll in classes at Duke, joining the team at the start of the spring semester. Zhao will have an uncommon freshman experience, but one that has already gotten off on the right foot, in part due to her acceptance into an already close-knit unit.
“We were fortunate enough to have that Hawaii trip and that’s a great bonding time. Whether we’re doing team stuff in Hawaii or on the court, just a time they could really be together, away from the day-to-day grind of school,” Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “She’s come in and she’s been a great addition to our program and a great addition to the Duke community, and will continue to be so.”
With two successful doubles teams heading the lineup, Ashworth never found a reliable third pairing. Due to a lack of dual matches before the calendar turned, Duke had some time to mix and match sophomore Meible Chi with senior Rebecca Smaller and freshman Ema Lazic. But when Jan. 1 came along, it was Zhao who claimed the spot alongside the sophomore.
“I kind of knew about it from Kelly [Chen],” Zhao said. “She was talking to me about that. It was in the air, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to play with [Chi] yet.”
With some practice time sandwiching the trip to Honolulu, the freshman has made the most of her time with her teammates and has gotten to know Chi quickly. Although there was some indication that Zhao would join Chi, nothing was guaranteed until the two stepped onto the court together.
“That was one of the biggest questions that we had. Obviously, we had two good doubles teams this fall. We had to make sure that Hannah and Meible were going to be a good team,” Ashworth said. “We’ve spent a lot of time with them together and put them in situations where they’ve had to do things off the court–little things like rooming in a hotel. Just to gel that bond between the two of them and she’s been great.”
The San Diego native joined Torrey Pines High School’s varsity team her freshman year and displayed her prowess from the opening serve. Undefeated for the entire season, Zhao cruised through her competition in the team’s matches. Then, it was time for the individual singles tournament, and Zhao did not disappoint. She bested her senior teammate and current Amherst standout Kelsey Chen in the CIF-San Diego Section Singles Championship, 7-6, 6-2.
“After that, I decided to focus more on individual tournaments just because it took up a lot of time in practice and during the day, especially with a full day of school, to get my own practice in,” Zhao said. “For most of the high school years, I played individual tournaments.”
Zhao not only left her school team after her unparalleled success, but she effectively left a team setting altogether. Like many aspiring college hopefuls, the competition is greater when broadening the mileage and traveling to more national tournaments. As a result, Zhao left her sectional at the pinnacle of the sport.
“It’s definitely a new change. The atmosphere, knowing everyone accounts for each other and we all bond so well and motivate each other very well,” Zhao said. “As a team, everyone pushes each other harder, and I think that has helped me improve.”
As the end of her junior career drew near, Zhao had one last memorable tournament in her hometown last Auguat, competing in the USTA Girls’ 18 National Championships in San Diego. Kelly Chen was the runner-up in the singles draw and teamed up with Zhao to form a Blue Devil duo in the final tournament they could play together before starting college. With assistant coach Matt Manasse on hand to watch the pair, the tandem cruised to a first-round victory, only relinquishing one game. But they then fell to the 17th-seeded pairing in the Round of 64.
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On the singles side for the hometown player, Zhao knocked out two opponents before falling in the Round of 32 in a match that would have set up a meeting with Chen. Zhao was seeded 17th in singles, while her current teammate and present No. 22 college player in the nation, Chen held the 33rd seed.
When Zhao and Chen faced off last June at the Southern California Junior Sectional Championships, Zhao won 6-4, 6-2.
“Hannah and Kelly knew each other before those matches and even before they decided to come to Duke as they were two of the best players to come out of Southern California. Anytime you have a chance to play doubles with a future teammate, you have to take it so I think it was really fun for them,” Manasse said. “In fact, Hannah drove to warm up Kelly each day as Kelly made the magical run to the final. Their relationship definitely grew stronger because of Duke.”
The transition into the college level is difficult, but with Chen only a message away in the fall, Zhao was prepared to make it. She scheduled her official visit for November—after she had committed to the Blue Devils—in order to participate in team activities before the spring.
With an increasing number of players turning to homeschooling or online schools to better accommodate intensive tennis training—including a few on Duke’s roster—some would argue that she did not maximize her ability by attending a public high school with a more rigorous and congested schedule. But Zhao will join the Blue Devil program in a fashion that many others would not succeed in academically.
According to Ashworth, January enrollment is not something he utilizes often. But over the course of his time on the sidelines, he has had success. Although Duke does not use this to the degree other programs do, if the fit is right and the academics fold together neatly, he is willing to bring someone in early. Zhao fit the mold of the system that Ashworth takes on a “case-by-case” basis. By joining the team in January, Zhao forfeits a fall season, but with the most important matches coming in the spring, she will still have four springs moving forward.
“[Torrey Pines is] very involved with sports, so it’s kind of like Duke in a sense with the academics and athletics both challenging,” Zhao said. “As far as walking away, it was pretty difficult just because I have all my friends there and I don’t get to really experience the senior activities and stuff, but I made the right choice in coming early.”
With an ultimate goal to win the program’s first national championship since 2009, there is at least one similarity for the Blue Devils. That championship run included a freshman spring-semester enrollee in Mallory Cecil. The then-freshman led the team to Ashworth’s first national title while also claiming the NCAA individual singles title, finishing the year on top of the rankings as the national player of the year.
Zhao has already seen success on the hard courts. Alongside Chi, the duo is 6-3 overall, including 1-0 in ACC play. On the singles end, the San Diego native is 4-4 with one straight-set victory against N.C. State Feb. 18. Moving ahead in the sixth position for Ashworth, Zhao will have ample opportunity to adjust to her new environment, helping her team from a position where she could do damage.
“I just thought it was just nicer to experience college earlier and get a head start with the education,” Zhao said. “Duke excels in academics and I had the ability to graduate early, so I took the chance.”
Correction: This article was updated to clarify a quote. The original version included an incorrect version of a quote by Manasse. The Chronicle regrets the error.