In 2019, Zoe Howard joined Princeton’s women’s tennis team as a first-year. Like many others, she decided to take a leave of absence after the Ivy League canceled all sports through January 2021.
Originally from Maryland, Howard is half-French and spending the greater part of her gap year in Paris, where she lives with her grandparents. When she’s not in Paris, she’s traveling the world to play at different pro-tennis tournaments.
“I played one in the south of France and then three in a row in Tunisia, Northern Africa and now, I’m playing in Greece,“ Howard said. “This is my third week in Greece, which is very cool but we're basically in a bubble at the hotel. The weather was really nice at the beginning but now it's getting kind of rainy but not enough to not be able to play tennis, so I kind of feel like I’m trapped.”
When Howard heard about the Ivy League’s decision to cancel sports, she was devastated.
“Initially, when it happened, our reaction was, how could they do this to us? We really didn't understand how big of a problem COVID actually was,” she explained. “It was in its early stages, and nobody else had taken any action. We had a very tearful team meeting and it was a tough blow but I think we soon realized the gravity of the situation.”
“But it never really got easier,” she added. “I was just home for months and months. No tournaments, no team. That was tough. It still is sometimes.”
Howard said that the decision to take a gap year came to her quickly.
“I really wanted to try out playing on the tour, like really give it my all and train and eat like a pro-athlete,” she explained.
When she was a student-athlete at the University, Howard struggled her first year to balance the demands of tennis and school.
“I played regionals in the fall and my teammate and I clinched the tournament as co-winners, and literally the next day, I took two midterms back-to-back. I was studying between matches and I had up to four a day with singles and doubles. I was just so stressed out the entire time,” she described.
Though without the academic pressure of her Princeton degree, the tour, as all things do in the time of COVID-19, comes with its own set of difficulties.
“Usually, on the pro tour, you’d have a bunch of different tournaments for different levels going on at the same time but a ton of them got cancelled because of the coronavirus so everyone is just flocking to the few that are still going on which means the draws are kind of stacked and I’m playing against really, really good players,” Howard said.
Finding a place to practice has also proved to be a challenge
“When I go back to Paris, we’ll be on lockdown. I’m allowed to play tennis because they have an exception for athletes, but there are so many clubs that are closed. Mine allows me to hit once a day, a few times a week, which is a lot less than I usually do and even then, I can only hit with other athletes who have the same exception. I can’t practice with my dad, for example,” she said.
Howard then discussed her home life. Her parents are both professors at Georgetown, and her father runs a nonprofit organization, the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, which is dedicated to breaking down barriers and stereotypes for inmates. It was his expertise on the subject that led to Kim Kardashian reaching out to him when she was amplifying stories of juvenile lifers and trying to get them acquitted.
“She actually came to my house for an interview with my dad which was wild. I walked into my living room at 9am. And I was like, oh, hi Kim Kardashian,“ she said. “She actually attended one of his classes on Zoom and he also went on Keeping up the Kardashians that Thursday.”
Howard’s father is also a veteran when it comes to college tennis. Having played at Yale himself, he usually accompanies Howard to her pro-tournaments and practices. This father-daughter rally is a bit of a tradition by now — the first time it happened, Howard was 3 years old.
She shared a photo with me of her playing with her father. Howard, miniature and completely dressed in pink, held a ball and racket in a tennis court, with her father by her side.
“I would just hit with my dad and I really liked it. I must have decent hand-eye coordination for a three year old or something because I remember my mom tied this super long rubber band with a tennis ball at the end of it and attached it to the ceiling. And I would just whack it with a tennis racket,” she explained.
When she was nine, Howard started playing with a coach she would keep all throughout high school. She described herself as a “late bloomer.”
“I tried playing the aggressive base-liner but I was a total string bean,“ Howard said. “I was small and thin, and had absolutely no power so playing aggressively would never work out for me.”
In high school, Howard’s game began to improve radically. She started playing for the USTA circuit where she advanced to No. 2 in the country for the 18 and under category. By her junior year, she was getting college recruitment emails.
“Everybody thought I was going to go to Yale. I don’t know, I don’t really like following a path that other people have laid out for me,” she said, referring to her father’s time as a Yale tennis player.
“I visited Yale and I was like, you know, it’s nice. But when I was in Princeton, I was like, yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.” Howard visited campus three times before she committed. “The team was so sweet. And one of the girls, who actually never ended up being one of my teammates, because I got there after she’d graduated, took me on a campus tour and during it, she would go up to people she didn’t even know and ask them to tell me why I should commit to Princeton. And everyone just seemed so friendly and I could tell they all loved the school so much.”
At Princeton, Howard has consistently outperformed herself. Earning the No. 57 ranking in singles in February, she led the team in singles wins after going 22-5 with a 13-3 record in the fall and a 9-2 record in the spring. Howard doesn’t talk about any of that though — she told me about her teammates instead — many of whom are taking gap years as well.
“One of them is in Korea right now, and then two of my seniors are doing internships. We have Zoom meetings from time to time and we try to stay in touch but it's definitely harder when we're not seeing each other every day all the time. I think we'll all be so happy to see each other in person when this whole thing finally blows over. The separation is going to make our reunion that much sweeter,” she explained.
When Howard isn’t playing, she reads.
“I’m trying to stay intellectually challenged,“ she said. “I don’t want to come back to Princeton having forgotten how to read.”
The last book she read was Simone Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex). “It took me ages to get through, it was like 652 pages. I try to stay updated too, so I read my Economist and NYT briefings. I’ve also started listening to audiobooks which is cool because I can do that while I’m working out.”
It’s not just French philosophy that has met Howard’s fancy — she’s also deeply interested in politics. Intending to concentrate in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), Howard has aspirations of becoming a political journalist. Her plan at the moment is to play professionally after college for a year or two, and then look for other options. She lists journalism, political work, and law school as possible options.
Her interest in politics led us to discuss the election which, at the time of our conversation, was still undecided. Howard said she was “cautiously optimistic.”
“You know, we’re all in a position where we’re formulating our own political ideologies and I guess I'm still sort of trying to work out how I feel about these things. A divisive reaction is not appealing to anyone or helping anything and I just think we could all be better at fostering conversation between people with different political views,” she explained.
Although both of us were oblivious to it, somewhere during the conversation, the election was called in favor of Biden from multiple news outlets.
While Howard has enjoyed her time away from Princeton thus far, she says she can’t wait to return to campus.
“When I’m out here playing these pro-tournaments, it’s just me and my dad so it does get a little bit lonely. I really miss that feeling of just being on campus, of having an agenda and having people to see,” she said. “I feel like when I get back in the fall, I mean, assuming we’re able to go back, I’m just going to run around campus with my arms outstretched. Like I’m home.”