Dominant student athletes are not rare at ASU. Players like football defensive tackle Will Sutton and basketball redshirt sophomore point guard Jahii Carson terrorize opponents in their respective sports. The less-prominent sports have their own set of dominant players that students don’t recognize as quickly.
Sophomore Stephanie Vlad has blossomed into one for the ASU women’s tennis team.
Currently ranked No. 50 in individual rankings, Vlad first picked up a racket when she was 7 years old.
“Both my parents are Romanian, so they definitely pushed me a lot in the sport and expected a lot out of me,” Vlad said.
Vlad said the European parenting style is tougher on the child than the common American style.
“They made it obvious when they were disappointed and when they were happy, and it definitely pushed me to achieve greater things,” Vlad said.
She learned the game quickly. By age 10, Vlad was competing in regional tournaments.
In Vlad’s freshman year of high school, the smooth sailing was interrupted when she tore her ACL during a tournament in California.
“I just kind of pushed off from the corner and my ACL popped,” Vlad said.
It took her a year and a half to get through surgery and physical therapy. The break took its toll on her play.
“(It took) another six months until I was playing well again,” Vlad said.
Her dad presented her with a tough choice.
“My dad gave me the ultimatum to either stay in school and focus on academics or pursue tennis again,” Vlad said.
Until she tore her ACL, Vlad attended an online high school. With tennis out of the question, she transferred to Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., for a semester of her sophomore year.
“I did sacrifice a lot of high school experiences … but I didn’t miss it that much, because I thought I was gaining a lot of experiences through traveling and playing tennis,” Vlad said.
She said she decided she loved the sport too much to give up. Tennis became her life.
At the time, tennis was an individual sport. Vlad’s flexible schedule allowed her to train in the mornings, rest and then train more in the afternoon.
Additionally, online school allowed her to travel with more flexibility. Tennis competitions took her throughout the southwest U.S.
Committed to staying home
Vlad attracted the attention of colleges such as Baylor, Oregon and Ohio State. She was dedicated to ASU, though.
“I wanted to stay in-state, I wanted to have my parents come out and watch my matches,” Vlad said.
Vlad also said the fierce competition in the Pac-12 was an attractive opportunity.
“I knew (coach) Sheila (McInerney) and (assistant coach) Clint (Letcher) had a great program going,” Vlad said.
When McInerney offered her a spot on the ASU team, Vlad accepted it and canceled appointments with the other colleges.
Vlad came to ASU for her first public school experience since the semester at Horizon. She said she struggled a little bit on the court.
“It’s a lot different, because in the juniors, you’re more playing for yourself,” Vlad said. “In college, you’re thrown into the team environment.”
Vlad had to adjust to find a role on the squad last season as a freshman but had a prime opportunity as a sophomore with Jacqueline Cako graduated, who played as ASU’s No. 1 the past two years.
“It was open, basically, for anyone to really step up because (Cako) had graduated,” Vlad said.
With improved play and hard work ethic, Vlad stepped into Cako’s vacant position.
McInerney said she’s not a very vocal leader, but her on-court intensity motivates others.
“Actions speak louder than words,” McInerney said.
Sophomore Ebony Panoho agreed.
“She’s really improved since she got to school,” Panoho said. “I think that she’s really becoming a leader of the team that people are starting to look up to.”
Panoho and Vlad have competed together in doubles play for the majority of the season.
“We have really good chemistry on the court,” Panoho said.
The two connect through their clashing personalities.
“(Panoho) is a very quiet girl, and when I play, I get really loud and really into it,” Vlad said.
Vlad said Panoho keeps her calm. Panoho said Vlad helps get her energy up.
“On the court, (Vlad’s) really feisty. … The kids play off her,” McInerney said. “They see how hard she works, how hard she competes.”
Vlad had to work hard to change and develop her game since arriving at ASU. In the past, she said she played 10 feet behind the baseline.
“I don’t have the game style to be able to do that,” Vlad said.
She said she now tries to stand closer and hit the balls earlier.
“I’m not a very big player … so I’m trying to use my opponent’s pace and not get pushed around,” Vlad said.
McInerney agreed with this sentiment and added that Vlad’s retrieval methods in junior play wouldn’t work as well in college. Instead, she and Letcher taught Vlad to play the balls earlier.
“If you’re up on the baseline taking the ball earlier, it gets back to your opponent quicker. It sort of takes time away from them,” McInerney said.
This new style of play helped Vlad become a force on the court her sophomore year.
“I had a very good fall,” Vlad said.
And she did. Vlad rose from an unranked student beginning her sophomore year to an athlete ranked as the nation’s 50th-best tennis player.
“I beat some pretty highly ranked players, but I consistently played well during the fall, and I didn’t have many losses,” Vlad said.
Vlad has only lost twice since November 2013: the semifinals of the Thunderbird Invitational and in the ITA Kick-Off Weekend championship match.
Fueled by competition
Vlad thrives on competition.
“(McInerney) made it very obvious that we have a very tough schedule, which I’m very excited about,” Vlad said.
Competition is her fueling force, and she would like to take it into the professionals. Nothing is set in stone, though.
“(Playing professionally) was always a dream of mine,” Vlad said. “My goals right now are just to finish school and go from there.”
She is majoring in sports and media studies at the W.P. Carey School of Business.
Vlad said this opens up opportunities in the fields of sports journalism or managerial positions.
“I was hoping that I could use hopefully tennis connections that I’ve developed through college to help me,” Vlad said.
She would also use her intensity and work ethic.
“When you have … probably your hardest worker playing at the top of the lineup, it bodes well.” McInerney said.
Reach the reporter at Logan.Newman@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @Logan_Newsman