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Ellen Tsay talks about life on the women’s tennis team

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Sophomore Ellen Tsay, a highly recruited tennis player coming out of high school, currently plays with senior Stacey Tan on the Cardinal’s No. 2 doubles team and also holds the team’s No. 5 spot in singles play. As the women’s tennis team prepares to square off against USC in the NCAA Tournament Round of 16 on Friday, Tsay sat down with The Stanford Daily to discuss the network of college tennis players across the country, how she and Tan came to play doubles together and the upcoming showdown against the Trojans.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Let’s start from the beginning. How did you start playing tennis? What made you want to play tennis competitively?

Ellen Tsay (ET): Well, my dad got me started at the age of three, so it’s basically been with me my entire life. I started playing tournaments when I was seven, and it just went from there because I guess I did kind of well. So then my parents put me in some more tournaments, and I liked playing tennis a lot. Around the age of 12, I started playing more national tournaments, so it’s kind of stuck with me ever since then.

TSD: Coming out of high school, how difficult was it to adjust to the team aspect in college?

Stanford sophomore Ellen Tsay plays at No. 5 in singles and with senior Stacey Tan is part of the No. 2 doubles pairing.(Stanford Daily File Photo)
Stanford sophomore Ellen Tsay (above) plays at No. 5 in singles and with senior Stacey Tan is part of the No. 2 doubles pairing.(Stanford Daily File Photo)

ET: I didn’t actually play for my high school because I was traveling a lot, but I did play on several teams in the past. But it’s just really different because at Stanford, the girls on our team are amazing competitors. We’ve shared a lot of the same experiences because we played in the Juniors and in the national tournaments together. So it’s pretty cool because instead of playing and competing against them, I get to work and practice with them [now]. It’s definitely great to hit with such high level players every day. For me, it didn’t take too long to get used to because at the bottom line, [tennis] is still an individual sport and you have to focus on your own match. You can’t rely on other people to pick up slack for you. It’s great if they can, but you need to do your part and take pride in your own court.

TSD: Who were some of the players on the team that you used to compete with before coming to Stanford?

ET: I basically knew everyone on the team before I came to Stanford. In the tennis community, everyone knows each other. Natalie Dillon and I go way back because we’re both from NorCal, so I remember playing against here when I was ten years old. She’s a senior now, and I never thought I’d be on the same team with her.

TSD: Does this apply to outside of the Stanford community, too? Do you go up against a lot of players on other college teams who you previously played against?

ET: Yeah, there are a lot of people who I played against in the Juniors and are still around. There seems to be this notion that the best players [immediately] go pro and college is kind of the fallback. But actually in college, a lot of players start improving a lot. So players who you used to beat all the time in Juniors could get really good because maybe they thrive in the college environment. It’s pretty cool to see how different people develop in college.

TSD: How do you tackle both tennis and the academic workload, especially as a premed? How taxing is it? 

ET: There are definitely a lot of events or things that I wish I could attend or do, so I’m limited in that sense. I’m also a little limited in how much I can explore my academic or extracurricular interests. I chose the two things that I envision myself doing in the future: tennis and the medical field. But in the Juniors, I got a lot of practice [balancing] that. I remember in seventh grade, I basically missed school every other week, so I had to make up stuff, like labs in the morning. So in a sense, that was good preparation. It’s actually not too bad in college because you’re playing for your school, so your professors are more understanding.

TSD: What are some of your strengths on the court?

ET: My strengths are my serve — when it’s on — and my overheads, which are very reliable. I probably come into net more than most players, so that has helped me a lot in the doubles — and poaching in doubles and taking advantage of when Stacey hits a heavy shot. One thing I continue to work on is staying very solid throughout every match because there’s times when I’m up and times when I’m down, so I need to try to even that out.

TSD: You went 24-8 overall in singles last season. Considering that it was your freshman campaign, how pleased were you with your performance?

ET: I guess I don’t really look at numbers too much. I felt pretty good throughout the year. I’ve definitely tried to play a lot more aggressively in college because everyone hits very aggressively, so if you want to compete, that’s what you have to do.

TSD: You and Stacey Tan have been playing doubles since last year. How did that come about?

ET: It wasn’t pre-planned or anything. The coaches just tried us out together and we won the first tournament we played in and so from there, they’re just like, “Okay, we’ll keep you two together.” It’s really fun playing with Stacey. I’m really sad that she’s going to be leaving after this year. We’ve gotten to know each other really well, both as people and players. I’m looking forward to this week of doubles with her.

TSD: Describe your relationship with Tan off the court.

ET: Stacey is an amazing person. She’s very even-keeled. When she wants something, she’ll get it done in a snap. But most of the time, she’s very laid back and a great person to talk to. I feel like we have such a great relationship that when we’re playing doubles, if we’re losing or getting frustrated, all it takes is something like eye contact or some laughter to get back on track.

TSD: You guys swept both Miami (OH) and Rice to advance to the Round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament. What’s the plan against USC?

ET: We all know the girls on the USC team. We all know what they’re like, we’ve played them multiple times. If we execute what we need to, we’ll pull through.

Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

George Chen is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily who writes football, football and more football. Previously he worked at The Daily as the President and Editor in Chief, Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a senior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email at [email protected]