The worst part for Jennifer Brady during her two years away from the WTA Tour was not the injuries themselves — the fracture in her right knee or the tissue tear in her left foot — that caused the prolonged absence she finally ended Tuesday by overwhelming 28th-ranked Anhelina Kalinina 6-2, 6-1 in the DC Open’s first round.
It wasn’t missing the competition or the camaraderie or the paychecks, either.
No, the most difficult aspect of it all, Brady said, was the uncertainty.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, because I was thinking, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to play again.’ Or, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to play again,’” the 28-year-old from Pennsylvania said in an interview with AP. “The unknown was so scary.”
So the runner-up at the 2021 Australian Open and semifinalist at the 2020 U.S. Open was ready — more than ready — to smile and yell “Come on!” when she hit one last forehand to finish off the win over Kalinina at John Harris Court on a cloudy afternoon with the temperature in the low 80s Fahrenheit (mid-20s Celsius).
Showing off some of the skills that used to carry her to the latter stages of hard-court Grand Slam tournaments, she consistently delivered serves faster than 105 mph (170 kph) and followed up with quick-strike, big-hitting baseline play, using forehands and backhands to claim points quickly.
These sorts of things did not always seem possible again.
“There was a period where I just lost a lot of motivation and discipline and all that. Because it was like, ‘When am I going to play? When am I going to feel good? Am I ever going to feel good?’ That’s fine if I don’t, but how much pain do I need to push through?” Brady said. “There was a lot of that back and forth and dealing with that.”
Brady, who played college tennis at UCLA, has been ranked as high as 13th but currently is 1,056th after being sidelined since August 2021.
She knows she’s not quite ready to be back in the closing days of a major. That’ll take more work and repetition, refreshing the muscle memory that can be relied on in a match’s most important moments.
That doesn’t mean the drive isn’t there for Brady, same as it ever was.
Which is why after one errant stroke early in the second set, she chastised herself with a yell of “Jenny!” Or why after one particularly off-target backhand, she smacked herself on the thigh.
Still, it had to feel good as she claimed 10 of the match’s last 11 games. Her shoes squeaked around the court and she sometimes even slid or nearly did splits chasing down Kalinina’s strokes.
“Deep down, I was like: ‘No, it can’t be over. You can’t be done yet,’” Brady said about the toughest moments of her time away. “I’ll just grind through it. Some days I was like, ‘OK, I can’t.’ Part of me was like, ‘OK, maybe this is the end.’ And the other part of me,” she added, breaking into a smile, “was like: ‘No. No chance. You can get back. You can get back.’”
In other women’s matches, qualifier Hailey Baptiste defeated two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova 6-1, 0-6, 6-3, 2021 U.S. Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez beat Bernarda Pera 6-3, 7-5 and Peyton Stearns eliminated Magdalena Frech 6-1, 6-4.
Next for Brady will be a second-round matchup against 2017 U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys, the DC Open’s seventh seed, who beat Zheng Qinwen 7-5, 6-1 on Tuesday night. Brady and Keys are doubles partners in Washington.
Keys’ singles win followed Frances Tiafoe ‘s 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) victory over Aslan Karatsev in front of a crowd that included NBA star Kevin Durant. Tiafoe, a U.S. Open semifinalist last year and the No. 2 seed in the DC Open men’s field, erased a set point at 5-4 in the second, then grabbed the last four points of the match after trailing 5-3 in that tiebreaker.
Unseeded American Michael Mmoh knocked off No. 4 Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), No. 5 Grigor Dimitrov beat Mackenzie McDonald 7-6 (6), 6-2, qualifier Shang Juncheng defeated No. 14 Ben Shelton 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, Thanasi Kokkinakis got past Taro Daniel 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, and Sho Shimabukuro eliminated Lloyd Harris 6-4, 6-4.
Shimabukuro lost in qualifying, but he got into the main draw when 2014 U.S. Open runner-up Kei Nishikori withdrew because of an injured left knee.
The DC Open was supposed to be Nishikori’s second ATP Tour event on his comeback from hip surgery in January 2022.
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