When women’s tennis junior co-captain Holly Cao went to play in her first-ever tournament, she was a bit underprepared.
“I went to the state tournament not really knowing the rules of tennis,” Cao said. “So my opponent had to tell me what to do—like where to stand and where to serve. I had no idea what the scoring system was…and I didn’t know that I was supposed to switch sides after two games.”
Regardless, Cao, who was only eight years old at the time, managed to reach the quarterfinals, proving her doubters wrong.
“When my father mentioned that I was going to play in the tournament, people kind of laughed at us,” Cao said. “So they were really surprised, because they didn’t expect me to do so well.”
Cao’s father then predicted that his daughter would win the same tournament next year—which she did. Cao also won a national under-12 event at Melbourne Park, the site of the Australian Open, the same year.
By 2006, Cao had become the top-ranked junior girl in Australia, and at one point held a professional ranking of 699 after playing in several WTA events. Eventually Cao decided that she would bring her talents to the banks of the Charles, where she has blossomed into Harvard’s No. 1 player and has gone undefeated so far this spring season.
“She is a very, very fierce opponent,” Crimson coach Traci Green said. “If I had to face her in a tournament, I’d definitely be nervous. She’ll put you in trouble and have you running the whole match.”
But playing for Harvard hasn’t always been easy for Cao. In her freshman year, she fell off her bike on a slippery road and injured her knee. Without an immediate diagnosis, Cao fought through the pain and played in the following weekend’s USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center Invitational in New York City.
The injury got worse as the tournament progressed, so Green decided that she had to stop Cao from continuing play in the third set of the semifinals.
X-rays taken after Cao returned from the tournament showed that she had fractured her kneecap.
“Everybody was just like ‘Whoa’,” Green said. “Basically she just ran through people with a broken knee and didn’t even want to stop. So we were just dumbfounded by the whole situation.”
“She was kind of just hobbling around,” senior Samantha Rosekrans added. “But she fought through the pain and tried as hard as she could for every point, which said a lot about her.“
A different educational system presented another challenge, and being thousands of miles away from home didn’t help either.
“I had a pretty tough freshman year,” Cao said. “Just being so far away from home and unable to go back very often—it’s hard to keep yourself afloat especially with that broken kneecap and everything.”
Cao spent a couple of months in a cast but eventually recovered from the patellar injury to come back stronger than ever.