Brady's burning belief in the college bunch

  • Dan Imhoff

The breakout moment as the next American teen sensation never came for Jennifer Brady.

While irrefutably gifted, the politely spoken Pennsylvanian – who reached her maiden Australian Open quarterfinal on Monday – had not even lined up in a Grand Slam main draw until she was 21.

SCOREBOARD: J Brady d D Vekic

This was despite moving to train at the Chris Evert Academy as a 10-year-old.

As she reached her formative years Brady had the foresight to know she needed time.

Turning pro would have to wait as she opted to take the college route – two years playing for the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Most people have a pretty successful junior career and then work their way up playing Challengers and eventually Grand Slams, but I went to college. For me it was the best thing that could have happened,” Brady said after seeing off Donna Vekic in the fourth round at Melbourne Park.

“I needed to mature off the court, needed to figure out who I was as a person off the court, on the court. College did that for me.

“It helped me come out of my shell. I was at every tennis academy for so long doing the same schedule and same structure, so a little change in my everyday life definitely benefited me at UCLA.”

That Grand Slam debut came four years ago when Brady became the first American woman qualifier to reach the fourth round at the Australian Open in the Open Era.

While she did back it up with a run to the round of 16 at the US Open later that year, Brady’s career all but stalled for the subsequent 2.5 years until she kicked off 2020 in Brisbane with wins over Maria Sharapova and world No.1 Ash Barty back to back.

A first top-10 win over Elina Svitolina followed in Dubai last February, where she went on to add former world No.1 Garbine Muguruza to her list of victims en route to her first Premier-level semifinal.

A completely transformed athlete from that of 2017, Brady was fitter, stronger and moving better.

Then came the pandemic hiatus.

While some afforded themselves an extended break from the sport, Brady was determined not to lose momentum completely.

Following the tour’s resumption last August, she returned to claim her first tour-level title in Lexington, Kentucky.

"I've never had to physically and mentally fight so hard."
Naomi Osaka on Jennifer Brady

A month later she reached her maiden Grand Slam semifinal in New York, where it took eventual champion Naomi Osaka to stop her in three sets.

Speaking this week of the matches that stuck with her the most, Osaka said her victory over Brady on Arthur Ashe Stadium stood out.

“I remember my match against Brady,” Osaka said. “I've never had to physically and mentally fight so hard. I think about that match a lot.”

The 25-year-old Brady took it all in her stride.

“We were both playing so many good points and unfortunately there was only one winner and it was her,” she said. 

“I think to know that that was one of her top two matches – unfortunate but also reassuring.” 

Despite having to serve a hard quarantine, the American dropped only 11 games en route to the fourth round, the fewest of any woman in the top half.

After taming a wounded Vekic, she set up an unlikely showdown with good friend and compatriot Jessica Pegula, who earlier upstaged No.5 seed Elina Svitolina.

As she left the court, Pegula wrote a touching show of support on the camera lens: “Let’s go Jen Brady.”

The former college star duly delivered and left a cheeky reply of her own as she departed Rod Laver Arena: “Bring it Jess.”

This laidback late-bloomer now has a second-straight major semifinal in mind at the very least this fortnight.

“I think every match that I'm playing I'm gaining confidence,” Brady said. “I don't feel like I have many weaknesses on the mental side right now.”