NEW YORK—Ten years ago, Madison Brengle won her first professional title, an ITF Futures event in Baltimore. She was 15 years old and ended the year at No. 777 in the world rankings.
It took six long years for Brengle to capture her second title, after officially turning pro at 17 and meandering around the Top 200. This year, the first time in her career, she’ll play in the main draw at all four majors.
It has been a decade’s worth of grinding for the 25-year-old American. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Brengle was able to claw back from a 5-2 third-set deficit in her first-round match at the U.S. Open against Saisai Zheng, all while dealing with a pulled back muscle. Brengle is used to the grind, and the fight—on and off the court.
After last year’s U.S. Open—Brengle’s first main draw at a major since the 2008 French Open—she noticed an unusual growth on her leg and had it tested. Her dermatologist called while she in Quebec City with the news: It was skin cancer.
Remarkably, Brengle put together a 10-match winning streak in late September, winning a $50,000 ITF tournament in Las Vegas and reaching the quarterfinals the WTA event in Linz. In October, she had the cancerous spot removed—only to discover a mass in her jaw that needed testing.
“I lost some sleep over that during the off-season,” Brengle says. “I really, really lost some sleep. I started going to nighttime Pure Barre [workout] classes so I would be so tired that I would just be able to fall asleep. Stress does weird things to your body.”
Luckily, a clean bill of health sent Brengle into the new year revitalized and more grateful than ever, which has shown in her results. She reached her first WTA final in Hobart before making a run to the fourth round of the Australian Open, marking the first time she had gone beyond the second round at a Slam. She’s one win away from matching that result this week at Flushing Meadows after a commanding, 6-3, 6-2 second-round win over fellow American Anna Tatishvili.
“I really can’t complain today,” Brengle said after winning 89 percent of her first-serve points (24 of 27) in the 55-minute rout.
Asked about her improvement this season, the world No. 47 chalked it up to “steady progression,” and that “everyone goes at their own pace.” But there are more tangible reasons. “It’s nice to know where I’m playing and plan my schedule,” says Brengle, who has at long last established herself on tour. The Detroit native trains in Bradenton, Fla. at the IMG Academy, and over the past year has traveled with Phillip Simmonds as her coach. Once a highly touted American junior himself (he reached No. 2 in the rankings), Simmonds also used to train at IMG. Like Brengle, he spent the majority of a decade trying to break through, eventually climbing to No. 219 on the tour.
The two are a natural pair, and the years of toiling aren’t lost on Brengle, who says the biggest difference has been changes inside her head.
“I think your game develops, you work on little things, but more than anything you work on your head and you can pull that [kind of match] out,” she said after her first-round 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 win over Saisai Zheng, a perfect example of her progress. “That wasn’t my best tennis and it was tough. It was hot and there was a lot going on. Being able to grind and pull out those sorts of matches I think that’s the kind of thing you develop as you get older.”
Next up for Brengle is 152nd-ranked Anett Kontaveit. Navigating through an advantageous draw, the crowd favorite will be a heavy favorite. But, like always, she’ll prepare for a grind.