A year ago, Jennifer Brady lost in the first round of the US Open to 46th-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich. The 6-1, 4-6, 6-0 score sharply revealed the up-and-down arc that defined Brady’s playing style and, arguably, her career.
This year—both before and after the sport's pause—Brady has said goodbye to the rollercoaster. And in doing so, she's waved hello to the US Open semifinals. For the fifth time this tournament, Brady handily won in straight sets, this time by dispatching 23rd-seeded Yulia Putintseva, 6-3, 6-2, in just 69 minutes.
It was hard to believe that Putintseva had won their prior two matches, nor could you tell that it was Brady’s first Grand Slam quarterfinal—at least on the outside.
“Coming into the match today, honestly,” said Brady, “I was feeling like I was going to poop my pants, but I was very nervous. I just tried to really stay calm and, like, keep it cool as a cucumber out there.”
Mission accomplished with yet another clean match, as Brady played this quarter more like it was her tenth.
Brady has reached three semifinals in 2020: at the Dubai Premier-level event in February; at the Lexington International-level event in August; and, most impressive of all, at the US Open. (Getty Images)
Putintseva is a gritty middleweight, tenacious and capable enough to have reached a pair of quarterfinals at Roland Garros prior to making it that far in New York this year for the first time. Both of her two wins over Brady came in 2018. But based on the kind of player Brady has transformed herself into, they might just as well have happened 20 years ago.
In complete charge from the start, scarcely troubled by Putintseva, Brady went up 4-0, 30-love. As was the case in the previous round when she smothered three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber, Brady swiftly made Putintseva look like a junior.
Then, a tumble. Brady lost nine straight points and served at 4-2, 0-15. Her left thigh, still bearing the tape she’d had put on it during the Kerber match, was bothering her. A Putintseva break at this stage would dramatically alter the flow of the first set.
“It kind of took my mind off the match a little bit,” Brady said about the pain she began to feel. “And then I was able to recover and really focus in and think, 'Okay, well, I'm up 4-2. How has the match been going?' I have been winning points when I'm playing aggressive tennis but not overplaying.
"So, you know, I was kind of, 'Okay if I just continue that and take it one point at a time, I can at least, you know, put myself in a position to serve for the set if I just continue to just, you know, play my game.' And then I was able to do that.”
The 25-year-old from Pennsylvania didn't let a bothersome sigh get in the way of her ultimate goal. (Getty Images)
But Brady bailed herself out, aided by good serving and, at 15-all, a careless forehand error from Putintseva. Seeking to serve out the set at 5-3, Brady opened that game the way every tennis player dreams of, striking a forehand winner. Soon enough, she’d captured the first set in 34 minutes.
Alas, the lack of spectators is a double-edged sword. Perhaps carrying memories of a 46-minute loss to Karolina Pliskova three years ago inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, Brady felt it was easier to play in front of no fans.
But an empty stadium can also turn the tennis into a portrait of solitude and sorrow. Early in the second set, Putintseva tossed her racquet to the ground. Had this happened in front of thousands, there’d have been a loud burst of boos and cheers that might well have jumpstarted her intensity. Instead, the brief tantrum only enhanced the austerity of all, of the loneliness and anger the boil within a player when overmatched versus a far more formidable opponent.
Even when Putintseva broke Brady to get back on serve at 2-all, it was clear she’d arrived with very few ideas and felt limited in her ability to execute them.
“I was just trying doing the match like to change some things a little bit, but unfortunately it wasn't working for me well today,” said Putintseva. “I couldn't react to the point as fast. And she was playing really fast balls to me, so I should have been quicker with my reaction. With my feet, as well.”
A trendy pick at the beginning of the tournament, Brady is making believers with her smooth, powerful strokes and commitment to her craft. (Getty Images)
Credit for much of Brady’s improvement goes to the steps she took late last year, when Brady headed to Regensburg, Germany to work with her new coach, Michael Geserer, and fitness trainer, Daniel Pohl.
“I decided if I want to give myself an opportunity to maximize my potential and see how far I can get as a tennis player, I think I have to make a change," said Brady. "Because they were based out of Germany, I decided, 'Okay, I'll go to Germany. I had no problem with that.' I was looking forward to it, something different, out of the box, different from the usual staying at home and training in Florida.”
The benefits of those hard yards were quite visible from start to finish today. With minimal friction, Brady ran through the next four games and continued on the path of that pleasing storyline known as the resurrection.
“I was playing Challenger events, lower Challenger events, losing in the qualifying first round," said Brady, "and I was thinking, 'Okay, do I have a chance to make it? Will I make it? How can I really succeed doing this? Am I meant to play this sport?'”
The world has seen the answer at this year’s US Open But perhaps, deep in her soul, Brady knows she truly began to answer those questions in a small guesthouse in the middle of a German winter. For all tennis players speak of confidence gained by visible outcomes, surely at least equal credit must be given to that more ethereal notion known as faith.