Jennifer Brady, ex-college star, graduates to US Open quarterfinals

Jennifer Brady, ex-college star, graduates to US Open quarterfinals

Former champion Angelique Kerber was no match for the red-hot American.

Angelique Kerber has built a Hall of Fame resume as a deceptive aggressor who masquerades as a counterpuncher. Like a shrewd defense lawyer, the left-handed Kerber deftly navigates her way through the discovery phase, assesses the opposition’s evidence, and then, strand by strand, refutes those arguments, eventually turning the tables. The Kerber mix is exceptionally effective against opponents who prepare poorly, make sloppy decisions at key stages and prove unable to close convincingly.

Today, though, the 17th-seeded Kerber ran into a fully armed prosecutor in Jennifer Brady. Marshaling her evidence superbly, backed by powerful, accurate serving and thundering groundstrokes, the 25-year-old American reached the first Grand Slam quarterfinal of her career, beating Kerber 6-1, 6-4.

A former UCLA Bruin, Brady is the first collegiate player to advance to the final eight in the singles of the US Open since Clemson Tiger Gigi Fernandez got that far in 1994. Perhaps now, she might join the likes of Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe as another UCLA player who leaves a major mark on the US Open.      

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Brady took charge of this match so quickly you’d think that Kerber was more of a junior hopeful than a three-time Grand Slam singles champion (including the 2016 US Open). Right from the start, the 28th-seeded Brady brutalized Kerber with penetrating groundstrokes from both flanks. Breaking Kerber at 1-2, Brady sprinted through the first set, winning it in 22 minutes.  

The biggest hole in Kerber’s game has always been her serve. A natural righty, Kerber’s lefty motion is awkward, her toss, arm and body rarely in sync. Often, Kerber is able to maneuver her way through this weakness. Not this time. Brady’s pressing return game persistently rocked Kerber on her heels, the German winning a meager eight of 23 points on her second serve.

Brady’s forehand heavily dictated the course of many points. While there are plenty of pros that can hit it hard, deep and through the court, Brady’s full-bodied swing helps her generate even more pace, spin, shape and curve. Her ball doesn’t just go through the court. It jumps off it, outside the alleys, similar in ways to what we’ve seen Rafael Nadal do for years. Versus many opponents, the speedy Kerber is quite adept at negotiating the rectangle-like dimensions of a tennis court. But Brady had turned it into an ever-widening circle, and soon went up 3-1 in the second set. 

“She is hitting the balls very fast,” said Kerber.   

Case closed? Not quite.    

Serving at 1-3, 30-40, Kerber clawed back to hold. On the subsequent changeover, Brady took a medical timeout, leaving the court for nearly eight minutes to have treatment on her left thigh. 

“I definitely did want to close it out in two sets,” said Brady, “because I wasn't sure, maybe my leg was bothering me a little bit, I couldn't serve as well.”

Her momentum slowed, clearly hindered, Brady served at 3-2 and missed two backhands to go down love-30, then 15-40. This was precisely the courtroom moment Kerber constantly looked for, false testimony from a witness that would commence the unraveling. 

“She was making a lot more balls in the second set,” said Brady. “I think maybe I wasn't as aggressive as I was in the first set.”

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But aided by big serves, a scorching inside-in forehand, and a crisp backhand crosscourt winner, Brady held to go up 4-2 and soon again backed Kerber into a corner, taking a 15-40 lead.

More counterpunching from Kerber, including a rare ace at 15-40, and, on game point to hold, her signature shot, that late but sneaky flat down-the-line forehand.

Next game the most pivotal game, Brady serving at 4-3. As had been the case all match long, Brady asserted, going up 40-15. Kerber raised her objections, including a let cord forehand winner at 40-30. There would be five deuces in this game, but only once would Kerber earn a break point, the window slammed rapidly when Brady blistered an 83 m.p.h. inside-out forehand winner. On another deuce point, Kerber seized control of the real estate, eliciting a short ball to her forehand that was an easy approach shot opportunity.

All match, Kerber had been put on the defensive in a major way. Now, with the chance for offense, Kerber retreated, revealing herself, in contemporary parlance, as a player who only comes up to net to tap racquets. Due largely to Brady’s onslaught, Kerber was uncertain how to calibrate her mix of offense and defense. Usually, Kerber’s opponents misfire more, but today, Kerber committed 21 unforced errors, compared to 14 for Brady.

No doubt Kerber’s confusion at this stage encouraged Brady. She won that odd rally and eventually took the game to go up 5-3 and earn a match point at 30-40. Here again, Kerber composed herself, smacking an inside-out forehand winner to eventually hold and force Brady to serve out the match.

The first point in those 5-4 games often tells the story. Here, Brady faced vintage Kerber, hanging tough through a 19-ball rally that she at last closed out with a rolling topspin forehand. At 15-love, an untouchable crosscourt backhand, Brady’s 25th winner of the match. It ended two points later with another Kerber rarity, a missed service return. 

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Said Kerber, “I tried everything, but in the end, in the important moments, she played better.”

Brady has clearly been aided by recently devoting extensive attention to strength and fitness in Germany under the guidance of coach Michael Geserer and physiotherapist Daniel Pohl. As Brady said after the match, “the improvement of my fitness I also have, that brings also the improvement of the mental side, as well, knowing that I can play my game at a high level from, you know, the very first point all the way until the end without a dip in my physical abilities.” 

All those hard yards unquestionably helped her build today’s airtight case.