The first time I consciously remember watching Jennifer Brady play tennis, the young American was playing Kristina Mladenovic in the first round of Roland Garros in 2017. We know that French players struggle in Paris, much as Samantha Stosur has struggled at the Australian Open, so from that vantage point, Brady had an opening against an opponent who was viewed as a dark horse pick to win that particular French Open.
Yet, Brady not only had to beat Mladenovic on Court Philippe Chatrier; she had to beat a vocal and supportive French crowd which tried to push Kiki over the finish line.
The player Brady did not need to beat: herself… but that’s exactly whom she defeated on that day in the City of Light.
Brady led 3-0 in the third set. She lost that lead.
She served at 5-5 in the third and got broken. She served at 6-6 and got broken. She kept breaking back… and then getting broken. At 7-7, she was broken one more time, and this time, Mladenovic held serve to finish the job. Brady played determined, resolute tennis… except when she had Mladenovic on the ropes.
One could see the potential in Brady’s game, and simultaneously, the vast distance between dreams and reality.
Fast-forward to Thursday’s semifinal at the Australian Open against Karolina Muchova.
Brady played far below her best. She was underwater in her winner-unforced error differential throughout the match. Her opponent was pinning her back with depth and throwing her off balance with the mixture of pace we have come to expect from Muchova.
Through it all, Jennifer Brady persisted.
The extensive training she did in 2020 to make her body and mind much stronger had already paid off at the U.S. Open, where she made the semifinals and pushed Naomi Osaka in a high-level match. It took Osaka’s very best to deny Brady her first major final.
This match against Muchova wasn’t nearly as good as that New York meeting with Osaka, but Brady fought through the ups and downs of this Melbourne Park nail-biter to gain a break lead in the final set and serve for the match at 5-4.
As I have written many times — it will always be true — a professional tennis player can never fully prepare for the first time when s/he serves for a significant career milestone. One can imagine what the pressure feels like. One can consult coaches or psychologists to no end. Yet, actually living in the moment and absorbing the emotions is its own reality. No one else can fully walk that journey. The athlete must walk it herself.
Jennifer Brady had to walk over the hot coals of pressure… and Muchova had to do the same when she tried to stay in the match.
Four break points later, Brady had somehow not lost her serve. Four match points later, Muchova had somehow not lost the match. Back and forth these two women stood on a high-wire, coming back to deuce and being two points from triumph or disaster.
Finally, Brady won two points in a row, converting her fifth match point.
The kind of match she simply wasn’t ready to win before 2020 had become the kind of match Jennifer Brady doesn’t allow to slip through her fingers anymore.
As a result, Brady will get a rematch with Osaka — not in New York, but in Melbourne.
Jennifer Brady has come a very long way from that afternoon in Paris four years ago against Kiki Mladenovic. Some will say Brady is an overnight success because of her surge within the pandemic, but she had to learn a lot of lessons over the previous several years.
Given how she has won without her A-game the past few matches, it’s safe to say that Jennifer Brady is fully applying what tennis has been trying to teach her.
Saturday, she will attend a graduate school lecture. Professor Naomi Osaka will be in the lecture hall known as Rod Laver Arena. Let’s see how attentive Jennifer Brady can continue to be.