"The sky is the limit": Jennifer Brady emerges as one to watch in NYC

"The sky is the limit": Jennifer Brady emerges as one to watch in NYC

The former UCLA standout wasn’t on most people’s radar when Lexington began, but the hard-hitting American ended the week with her first WTA title. How Brady's breakthrough run makes her a player to keep an eye on at the US Open.

“The sky’s the limit,” Jennifer Brady told her coach, Michael Geserer of Germany, after her 6-3, 6-4 win over Jill Teichmann in the Top Seed Open final on Sunday. “So let’s keep going.”

Brady wasn’t blowing smoke or falling back on a cliché. Neither of those things are this straight-shooting Pennsylvania native’s style. Rather, she was telling the plain truth, and at the same time giving voice to a question that’s on the minds of a lot of U.S. tennis fans right now: What exactly is the upper limit for this athletic, explosive 25-year-old? And, even more intriguingly, can she reach it by the time the US Open rolls around in two weeks?

The idea that Brady could qualify as a dark horse at this year’s Open was probably not one that had crossed many people’s minds in the past. At the start of 2020, after five years on tour, she hadn’t been ranked higher than No. 45. While she made the fourth round at the Australian Open and US Open in 2017, she had failed to advance past the second round at a Grand Slam since. She had the power, she had the serve, she had the point-ending forehand, she had the weapons to threaten any top player, and she often did. But she didn’t have the consistency, or seemingly the confidence, to close out her higher-ranked opponents.

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After an intensive off-season with Geserer, though, Brady came back trimmer and fitter than ever in 2020, and she began to make good on her upset threats. In Brisbane, she recorded her first Top 10 win, over Ash Barty, and in Dubai, she recorded her second, over Elina Svitolina. She kept playing through the lockdown, first in Charleston, and then with World Team Tennis in July. Still, when the women gathered in Lexington, the unseeded Brady’s presence wasn’t the one that generated headlines. Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Aryna Sabalenka, Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens: Those were the players we were all looking forward to watching again.

But it was Brady who was the one left standing with the trophy on Sunday. In her six wins, she didn’t lose more than four games in any set, and she was broken a total of three times all week. In the semifinals on Saturday, she ended Gauff’s strong run, and she did the same to Teichmann in the final.

Both times, Brady came out of the gates quickly and overwhelmed her opponents early. Then, when the score tightened in the second set, she leaned on her serve to push her across the finish line. In general, Brady won with a powerful one-two, serve-forehand punch. The pace on Brady’s first serve was tough to handle, and the kick and depth on her second ball made it difficult to attack. Her improved fitness helped her run around backhands and hit as many forehands as possible. Brady has one of the heaviest forehands in the game, and its mix of pace and spin wears even the most consistent of her opponents down.

“She has power,” Tennis Channel’s Paul Annacone said on Sunday, “but she also has margin on her shots.”

“It feels great to win my first title,” Brady said. “There’s only winner each week, so walking home with the trophy for the first time, at home in America, I’m really happy.”

While Brady stayed match tough over the last month, the pandemic still made life for her and her coaches more complicated than it normally would have been.

“I didn’t have my coach or trainer during the lockdown because they’re both based in Germany,” Brady said. “We had great communication over the past four, five months. They sent me a plan every day. Over the past few months, I’ve been going non-stop, working and training really hard.”

Whatever physical work a player puts in, of course, the final hurdle is bound to be mental. Brady has been close to breakthroughs in the past, only to let leads slip, or lose her range at the wrong time. The last obstacle in Lexington came at the end of the first set in the final against Teichmann. Brady was up 5-3 and serving, and she quickly reached 40-0. But with the first set seemingly wrapped up, she squandered all three set points, and suddenly grew agitated. But she persevered, kept hitting big, and finally closed out the set.

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In the second set, Brady broke early. There was still a long way to go, but if she could hold out, the title was hers. Each time it was her turn to serve, she slowed down, took her time, and made sure she was the player in command of the rallies. Like all great servers, she basically dared Teichmann to break her. It was a champion’s attitude, and a champion’s performance, and she finished it in champion’s style, with a forehand winner.

“I was just focused on what I wanted to do with the serve and the first ball after that,” Brady said of her second-set mindset. “I was trying not to get too ahead of myself, taking each point as is, because every point was an opportunity to get closer to the title.”

The sky, as Brady said, would seem to be the limit for a player with her skills. Is she a dark horse to win the US Open, or at least to make the semifinals? The thought is both preposterous and tempting. She’s still ranked just 40th, but half of the WTA’s Top 10 won’t be in New York, and as of now, few others will come in with her level of confidence and momentum. But there’s also no reason to burden Brady with expectations like that. Let’s just say she’ll be a player to watch—in New York, and, hopefully, for years to come.