“What’s wrong with U.S. tennis?”
Among pundits and the American public, it’s a question that never goes out of style. I thought it might be different at this year’s Australian Open, a tournament in which 17 U.S. players reached the second round, four U.S. women made the second week, and one will play in Saturday’s final, where she’ll try to become the second straight champion from the States. Yet none of that was enough to keep sports pundits on TV and in print from rehashing old complaints about the state of the American game.
When those pundits say “U.S. tennis,” it seems they really mean “U.S. men’s tennis.” And it’s true, only one American man, Mackenzie McDonald, made the fourth round in Melbourne. But it has been many years since this country has had such a diverse and growing cast of WTA contenders. If we’re looking for the next Serena Williams or Chris Evert, the next double-digit major-winning champion, we’re probably going to be disappointed. But I’d suggest a different way of defining success: Are players from the U.S. improving and getting closer to fulfilling their potential?
The evidence on the women’s side from Australia indicates that the answer is yes. Bernarda Pera upset Angelique Kerber. Ann Li made the third round at a Slam for the first time. Shelby Rogers made the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time. Jessica Pegula made a major quarterfinal for the first time. And now Jen Brady is into her first Grand Slam final.
Brady’s semifinal against Karolina Muchova was rightfully overshadowed by the one that came before it, between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. But Brady-Muchova turned out to be the more dramatic match. Its final game, in which Brady had five match points and Muchova three break points, may have been the most likely to induce a heart attack since Andy Murray tried to close out Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon final.
Brady is about as American-sounding as they come. Asked what she was going to do before the final, she said, “I’m just going to hang with my team, have a little gym session.” The 25-year-old is also a consummate late-bloomer. She says it wasn’t her shots held her back when she was younger, it was her head.
“All the coaches that I had…they were always telling me I had potential to be a great player,” Brady said. “[But] I had a bit of a temper as a kid. Wasn’t really mentally the toughest. So I think that has kind of just shifted my whole career, just being able to stay in tough moments, close out tough matches, just fight my way back regardless of the score.”
The Pennsylvania native and Evert Academy product starred at UCLA, but she didn’t fully believe that she had an elite-level game until 2020. It wasn’t so much beating highly-ranked opponents that changed her mind; it was hitting with them, and realizing they couldn’t do anything with their shots that she couldn’t do herself.
“Because [at] the start of the year I had some good wins, I was practicing with the top players,” Brady said. “Once I was able to see, OK, they don’t really hit the ball much bigger than I do, they don’t do anything super spectacular compared to what I do, so I can do the same.”
It’s one thing to believe you can play with the best on the practice court, but another to believe you can serve out a Grand Slam semifinal at 5-4 in the third set. It took Brady a few minutes to learn to do that, too. After beginning the final game with two bullet aces and going up 40-15, she confidently lifted her arms, as if victory was at hand. Little did Brady know how much work she still had to do, and the emotional roller coaster that was to come. She lost one match point and dropped to her knees in despair. She went down a break point and drilled a ball furiously into the net. She stared, bug-eyed, at her coaches. She seemed to be on the verge of a meltdown. According to Brady, she was.
“I was just so nervous,” she admitted. “I couldn’t feel my legs. My arms were shaking. I was just hoping she would miss and she didn’t, and she was playing more aggressive. Then I would say I started rambling, mumbling on and on and on and on. It was just point by point, point by point, and eventually I was able to close it out.”
It has been a long road to Brady’s first Grand Slam final. She went through hard quarantine and was unable to hit a ball for the first two weeks she was in Australia. Which is all the more reason for her achievement to be recognized back home.
“Who is the future of U.S. tennis?” the pundits have been asking for years. Jen Brady is giving them an answer.