Playing in one of the strongest eras of UAA tennis players, Will Zhang of University of Chicago made his mark and helped lead the Maroons to their first win in the NCAA Division III Men’s Tennis Championship in his senior season in 2011.
The 2008 UAA Rookie of the Year and two-time All-American’s career included wins over future NCAA champions Chris Goodwin of Emory University and John Watts of Washington University. His rookie honor was the first for the Chicago program (Nicolas Chua and Erik Kerrigan have since garnered the award) and he became the first Maroons’ men’s player in program history to reach the quarterfinal round of the NCAA singles championship, which he accomplished in 2009.
“Overall, I had a great experience,” Zhang remarked. “I really liked my teammates from the time I met them on my recruiting visit – we were a very close-knit team. We managed to balance academics and athletics, but tennis was always clearly number two for us.”
An annual spring break trip to South Carolina or Virginia also helped bring the team closer. “Those were some of the best times we had as a team,” he stated. “The trips were a lot of fun and a great chance for the team to bond before heading into the heart of our season.”
After winning at No. 3 singles against two NCAA Division I opponents in January of his freshman season, he moved into the No. 1 singles spot in the lineup and never relinquished it. "In his first college match, he took out five-star freshman recruit Pete Rispoli from Northwestern," remembered head coach Marty Perry, who led the Maroons' men's and women's programs for eight years. "I had him at No. 3 that day because I had yet to figure out how good he actually was. Needless to say, he found his way to No. 1 right away."
Zhang finished his rookie season with a 14-8 record, including a 6-4, 6-4 victory over John Watts. "That was his best win in my opinion," Perry commented. "Watts had very few losses at No. 1 in dual matches."
For a player with a history of cramping, it was ironic that he played in eight three-set matches in his rookie campaign. “I had cramping issues throughout my juniors and college careers,” he recalled. “But I’m not sure it was necessarily a conditioning issue as much as it something that I had always struggled with, regardless of my fitness at any given time.”
Zhang won five of his six 3-set matches in his sophomore season, his most successful individual season. He finished the season 18-5 against NCAA Division III competition and recorded wins over Chris Goodwin (7-5, 6-3) and Nick Lebedoff of Williams College (winning the third set 6-2) to reach the quarterfinal round of the NCAA singles championship, and wrap up the year ranked #7 nationally in Division III.
He picked up 16 more wins against Division III competition in his junior season and rallied from one set down in his first-round match at the NCAA singles championship to reach the second round.
In his senior season, Zhang played a career-high 10 three-set matches (splitting them) and finished with 16 more victories. “Senior year was memorable because we beat Wash U during the regular season and then made NCAA’s as a team,” he said. “Those were two major goals that we had that season and we hadn’t done either during my time up until then.”
Another key win for the Maroons that season was a 5-4 victory over Carnegie Mellon University in the third-place match, sealing an at-large bid to the national championship. “There was a lot of motivation to play well because the 3rd place match always seemed to decide if we got into NCAAs or not,” Zhang commented. “It was always a high-energy atmosphere and it was really important for us to try to get in the top three. Wash U and Emory were always so tough.”
The Maroons defeated Grinnell College, 5-2, for their first program win in NCAA history before falling to Trinity University in the next round. Although he did not play a lot of doubles in his career, Zhang teamed up with Kunal Pawa at No. 3 doubles for a win that gave the Maroons a 2-1 lead over Trinity heading into singles.
“Talent-wise, we were always up there as a team, but we never trained hard enough to go further than we did,” Zhang remarked. “Unfortunately, it just wasn’t part of a team culture we were ever able to build during my time, and I was of course partly responsible for that. Not everyone was interested in investing the time into tennis with everything else going on at a school like UChicago, and our results clearly showed that. We were never able to seriously compete for a national championship. I applaud how the attitude and mentality of the program has changed in recent years – the team is now perennially a real threat to win NCAAs and that’s amazing to see.”
Zhang finished his career with his third trip to the NCAA singles championship. “Making nationals in singles was always fun” said Zhang, who had played Super National tournaments throughout his junior career. “It was so well organized and exciting. Plus, it was good to see guys I knew from juniors.” One of the highlights of his junior career was at Kalamazoo National Hard Courts, where he took a set off Tennys Sandgren, who went on to play at the University of Tennessee and recently reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 Australian Open.
"Will was one of the two most talented players I coached in my time at Chicago (the other being Ward Bortz)," Perry stated. "He was a fierce competitor and he repeatedly found his 'A' game in big matches. He loved the pressure of playing No. 1 and was a true leader on the court."
Photo: Will Zhang with friend Julian Sullivan, who played collegiate tennis at North Carolina State University
“I found a good niche at Chicago with tennis, friends, and my fraternity,” Will recalls. “I learned how to take care of business on and off the court and stay on top of everything. I also learned a lot as team captain, in terms of what it takes to engage with different personalities and balance people’s egos and needs. That experience has served me well I think in my post-college life.”
Immediately after college, Zhang worked within investment banking and private equity roles at BMO Capital Markets and The Vistria Group, respectively. Most recently, he launched a financial services company called OneChain Capital, a trading firm focused on providing liquidity for digital assets and cryptocurrencies. “It made sense to stay in Chicago after graduating and I haven’t had a reason to leave since,” stated Zhang, who graduated from Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, the same school Kobe Bryant attended. “I have one more team state championship than he does,” he laughed. “I joke with people now that I was actually more athletic, and Kobe was more academic."
Photo: Will Zhang with friends from UChicago