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Slow & steady: Jennifer Brady's success story finally coming together
Featuring equal parts fun and focus, the 25-year-old American has a long list of strengths—but the she also knows her limitations.
Published Jan 28, 2021
On Wednesday, Jennifer Brady will face Jessica Pegula in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Read our preview of that match here—as well as the following profile, from the January/February 2021 issue of Tennis Magazine.
“I’m one of the worst storytellers, and that’s a known fact,” Brady says.
As if fact-checking herself, she proceeded to tell one.
“I was not a very well-behaved child,” she began. “I was probably 12 or 13, playing 14-and-unders. I was up 5–1 and then it gets to 5–all, and I just let out an F-word. A coach from the academy was like, ‘If you say that again, I’m going to yank you off the court!’ Then I said it again. She didn’t yank me off the court, but I lost, 7–5, 6–0.
“My mom ended up leaving halfway through the match. I thought she was upset with me, but really my sister was home alone and the dishwasher was overflowing, so she had to go fix that, so she didn’t get to witness my temper tantrum, which was good.”
“Off the court, I’m like ‘la-da-da-da-da,’ sort of in outer space sometimes,” she says, making her sound more like a fun weekend sidekick than a disciplined pro athlete. “I really just like to have a good laugh and enjoy the moment.”
But Brady has a mental switch—and, over time, she has learned how to flip it. As soon as she steps onto a tennis court or into the gym, she initiates machine mode.
“I’m laser-focused on the court,” Brady says. “If my coach tells me that we’re hitting balls and I am running side-to-side for five hours, I say ‘OK.’ And I do it. And I never complain. If anything, when [my physio] isn’t looking, I’ll try to do a few extra reps.”
Brady went 13–4 after tournament play resumed in August, winning her first WTA title in Lexington. (Getty Images)
In 2020, that focus and work ethic began to pay off. Her dark brown eyes conveyed a quiet confidence over the course of her breakthrough season, that no one watching would have guessed she spent much of her tennis career wondering if she truly belonged with the best in the world.
Brady first picked up a racquet at 7 alongside her twin sister Jessica at a local clinic in her hometown of Harrisburg, Pa. Though no one else in her family played tennis, Jennifer couldn’t get enough. Her parents, Patrick and Elizabeth, even hung a sheet from their basement ceiling in an effort to both protect the walls and provide Brady with a makeshift ball-retrieval system.
The following year, her family moved to Florida as a result of her mother’s job. They relished the warmer weather, while the 10-year-old Brady flourished in the state’s tennis paradise, earning a scholarship to train at Chris Evert’s academy in Boca Raton.
Taking bits of inspiration from idols Lleyton Hewitt and Justine Henin, Brady developed a game complete with a big forehand, kick serve and topspin to spare. Coaches, including
Evert herself, said she played “like a guy”—which, according to Brady, is due to the fact that she tailored her game to match her mostly male practice partners. Evert remembers Brady’s early years at her academy well.
“She was athletic, hit a hard ball and was very talented with her hands, but she had no focus whatsoever,” Evert says with a laugh. “She didn’t know how to problem-solve and get herself out of trouble. The game was always there, just not the consistency.”
That lack of consistency prevented Brady from following in the footsteps of a strong group of American contemporaries, including Madison Keys, Sachia Vickery, Victoria Duval and Samantha Crawford, who each skipped college tennis to get a head start on their professional careers.
“I felt like a little bit of an outcast,” Brady says. “But in the juniors, I didn’t really have the results like the other girls, so college was the only option.”
Two seasons at UCLA saw Brady mature enough, physically and mentally, to comfortably make the jump to the pros. She helped the Bruins win an NCAA National Championship as a freshman in 2014, and took the fall off to play ITF events, where she rocketed from unranked to No. 220 in the world in four months. After returning for a second spring season at UCLA, she turned pro in the summer of 2015.
Just two years later, she turned heads by reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open, and later that year did the same at the US Open. She cracked the Top 60 for the first time. But instead of a springboard, her 2017 success proved to be a stressor.
“Coming into 2018, at the Australian Open, all I was thinking about was just defending my points, and I just didn’t have the confidence in myself or my game,” Brady says. “I wasn’t mentally ready for it, and I didn’t really feel like I belonged.”
Brady’s ranking detoured outside the Top 100 in 2018 and early 2019, only reinforcing her belief. That’s when a connection made courtesy of tour coach Billy Heiser changed the course of Brady’s career. He reached out to German colleague Michael Geserer on her behalf, who flew to Beijing in September 2019 for what turned out to be Brady 101.
“We had never spoken before, never even seen each other, and it was the most awkward experience,” Brady says, smiling at the memory. “If I don’t know a person, I’m socially awkward. I remember I was talking to my friends, and I was like ‘Oh, I’ve got to go sit with Michael for lunch. What are we going to talk about? I don’t know!’”
A few days after her “awkward experience,” Brady would successfully qualify and reach the round of 16 in Beijing, her tennis proving to be parlance for subsequent coach-player conversations. She officially signed on with Geserer and physio Daniel Pohl, which meant breaking away from the status quo—and the funding—of the USTA, and spending the 2019 offseason in chilly Regensburg, Germany, instead of balmy Lake Nona, Fla.
“I told myself, ‘It’s time to get uncomfortable, Jenny. You’ve been comfortable for way too long,’” she says. “Germans are very structured, especially Michael. He’s very disciplined and always has a plan. I really needed that.”
Despite Brady’s casual approach to life, her coachability served her well under Geserer and Pohl’s tutelage.
“Jenny is hard-working with a great attitude,” says Geserer, a former ATP pro who previously worked with Philipp Kohlschreiber and Julia Goerges. “We believe in smart, hard work, and she gets the best out of every day.”
Brady saw the fruits of her labor almost immediately, notching wins over Ashleigh Barty, Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza before the pandemic shut down tennis in March. Though Team Brady wasn’t together during the nearly six-month layoff, Geserer and Pohl sent their student daily practices and workouts, which prepared her for a surge in her first tournament back.
She didn’t drop a set en route to her maiden WTA title at The Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky.
Despite a first-round loss a week later at the Western & Southern Open, Brady’s perspective had shifted heading into the US Open.
“I just felt really confident in my game and myself, and I felt like I had all the preparation. I knew that all I had to do was just play,” Brady says. “There were no doubts in the back of my mind.”
Brady proceeded to rattle off five wins at the US Open, reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal and becoming the first former women’s college player to reach that stage of the tournament since Lori McNeil in 1987. Routine victories over former world No. 4 Caroline Garcia, 2016 champion Angelique Kerber and No. 23 seed Yulia Putintseva left no question that Brady has the tools to be a force at the top of the women’s game.
Her three-set semifinal loss to eventual champion Naomi Osaka, a battle that many called the match of the tournament, cemented that fact. Brady’s trademark cockeyed Asics visor topped off her fit 5’10” frame as she matched Osaka shot-for-shot from the baseline, but it was her versatility that caught her opponent’s eye, in advance of their semifinal faceoff.
Osaka didn’t break Brady’s top-notch serve until the final set of her 7–6 (1), 3–6, 6–3 US Open semifinal victory. (Getty Images)
“She has the variety I wish I had, so I’m really jealous,” Osaka told the virtual media in New York.
In a full-circle moment befitting a sports-movie script, Evert commentated on Brady’s semifinal for ESPN, 15 years after a scrawny 10-year-old from Pennsylvania first set foot on her academy grounds. Early question marks regarding Brady’s focus and on-court maturity morphed into exclamation points.
“Her movement was incredible. And then there was the fact that she went match after match at a high level, instead of one big win and then a letdown,” Evert says. “She had a calmness, a consistency and a look in her eyes that I hadn’t seen before.”
Brady’s 2020 performance, complete with a Top 25 debut, meant a return to Germany with Geserer and Pohl was in order for the off-season. She plans to approach an uncertain new year with the same on-court intensity, but with a far different perspective.
“The way I look at things now is much different than the past three years,” she said. “After the US Open and winning my first title two weeks before, I said to myself, ‘OK, you belong here.’ And now I feel like I can keep striving for more.”
Fortunately for Brady, her story is an engaging one—no matter who tells it. From “outcast” to standout, she has navigated her career at her own pace, realizing to the delight of friends and fans alike that “focused Jenny” and “goofy Jenny” can indeed coexist.