A Fairy Tale Ending
April 22, 2013
By Sarah Bergstrom
Once upon a time, the rivalry between USC and UCLA women's tennis was a lopsided one. This actually wasn't too long ago, as the Bruins won all four meetings between the teams from 2009 to 2011. It became difficult to see the match-up as a rivalry at all and it was at this point that the storyline for the Trojans hit a turning point. They needed a leader, someone they could look to for inspiration and determination, someone who understood that tennis is just as much a team sport as an individual one.
Enter Danielle Lao. Lao was a member of the team from 2009 to 2011 and watched the Trojans struggle against their rivals and other Pac-10 opponents. She spent the first two years maturing, developing her game, and learning by watching teammates and coaches.
"My first two years at USC were tough seasons. The journey from that experience to these past two years in which we've been very successful has meant everything to me," says Lao.
In those first two seasons, the Trojans were 29-18 overall and finished ranked No. 20 and No. 19 in the nation. Lao considers that period a team struggle, but individually, her freshman and sophomore years were impressive. In her first season, she was voted ITA Southwest Rookie of the Year, was named to the All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention list, and finished with an individual record of 23-12. The following season, Lao finished ranked No. 23 in the country, secured All-Pac-10 Second Team honors, and improved on her individual record ending the season 26-13.
"Coming in as a freshman I was the youngest girl on the team," explains Lao. "It took a lot of work on my part to mature as an individual in all aspects of my game, both physically and mentally. Every player has to go through that process and some have a faster learning curve than others. For me it's been a journey, reaching the end of that journey now I can see how far I've come and it's a great feeling."
The senior improved steadily in her time at USC, rising in the rankings and as a leader on the team. Lao has been ranked in the ITA Top 50 in each of her four seasons at USC. As a junior, she attained ITA All-America honors, All-Pac-12 Second Team honors, made the NCAA All-Tournament team for doubles, and won the National Collegiate Tennis Classic. She finished 2012 ranked No. 18 with a 24-4 record. This season, she has been just as successful, taking down multiple ITA Top 10 opponents and leading the Trojans to an undefeated Pac-12 record as the No. 5 ranked team in the nation.
"My career as a Trojan has definitely gone by very fast, especially my junior and senior years. It's been an experience I will take with me for the rest of my life and I just have my coaches, the staff, and every one of my teammates to thank for that," the senior says.
The story of Lao and her Trojan teammates reached its climax last April when USC upset No. 1 UCLA (6-1) to clinch shared ownership of the Pac-12 title with Stanford. The tables had turned between the schools and it was USC's time to shine. Lao played a major role in that victory, scoring key points in both doubles and singles. She has continued to contribute this season helping to lead a team that's 20-2 headed into the final match of the regular season. Lao's current overall record as a Trojan is an impressive 105 wins and 37 losses. It's safe to say she has been a dominant force on the court, but she credits her success to the group of girls she plays alongside.
"With this team, it's more than just being friends. We are a complete package, we are a family. I think that's been key to our success and why we have been doing so well. We are bringing out the best of each other every single day," Lao says.
Teammate Zoe Scandalis believes Lao is one of the greatest competitors she's ever gotten to play alongside, citing her discipline and her ability to inspire those around her.
"Danielle is the hardest, most committed worker on the team. She sprints hardest, practices hardest, and thinks the most about what is best for us all. She has inspired me before great moments and brought me up when times have been tough. After one of my biggest letdowns on the court, she gave me a speech I will never forget. Her words have truly helped me in moments like that ever since. I can't believe I've been lucky enough to have a leader like her," says Scandalis.
Her teammates have described her as a silent leader, the teammate that doesn't have to say much but establishes her influence by being the first one on the court at practice and being the last one off. Scandalis believes Lao's character is her biggest strength as a tennis player, Lao's coach agrees.
"Danielle is both a fantastic player and a fantastic person. On the integrity and character scale she is way up there. There is zero chance she will not be successful in life because it's just in her DNA. Not only is she a talented tennis player, but she's a hard worker. That's very rare in an athlete to have both. We can't say enough about Danielle. She has been a big part of this program in her time here," adds women's head coach Richard Gallien.
Lao says she is honored to be thought of as a leader amongst her teammates but, like any good leader, defers all recognition of their triumph to the mentality and work ethic of the entire group. She recognizes that she is in fact a silent leader and works to better her team by her example on the court.
"To me, a good leader is someone who can understand that everyone has a role on the team," says Lao. "Me stepping into this role as a leader is mostly me leading by example. I don't really tell the girls what to do because they already do what's right. By showing up and giving my best every day, I think it compels them to give that kind of effort too."
Some athletes say that facing UCLA, especially multiple times in one season, is approached just like any other game. Lao doesn't think the team's preparation will change but acknowledges that there is definitely something special about finishing her career as a Trojan on this rivalry.
"Seeing the transition from when they dominated us my first two years, to when it actually became competitive is a great Cinderella story for us. I love the fact that we are playing them as the last match of the regular season and it's at USC. If we come out with a victory, it really would be a fairy tale ending to my career."