The most stunning thing about Jennifer Brady’s stunning run to the semifinals of the United States Open is that it included a stop in college, at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Attending college was long considered a major no-no for anyone serious about having a successful tennis career. The lure of the American college experience has even been blamed, at times, for the country’s failure to produce more top stars. American players, especially men, the thinking went, were choosing fraternity parties and the pressure-free idyll of a cushy campus life over the hard, lonely work of playing for their next meal and climbing the rungs of professional tennis in the sport’s backwaters, the way the top European prospects do.
Now Brady, like Danielle Collins, who made the semifinals of the Australian Open last year after playing for the University of Virginia, has some of the top minds in tennis thinking, Maybe this college thing isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Tennis is far more of a power game than it used to be, even just a decade ago. Most players do not break through until their early 20s. Given that shift, college suddenly seems like an attractive place for promising, if not prodigal, teenagers to mature, both physically and mentally, before embarking on the nomadic, do-or-die life of the pro circuit.
“It’s going to be a trend in the future,” said John Evert, who runs the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., where Brady spent her teen years before he blessed her decision to attend U.C.L.A. “College tennis isn’t just team practices and dual matches anymore. Coaches are recruiting as a place where you can develop into a pro.”
It may take a few more Bradys for a trend to form. It has been a long time since John McEnroe made the semifinals of Wimbledon at 18, before starting his freshman year at Stanford. McEnroe was following in the tradition of past champions like Stan Smith (University of Southern California) and Arthur Ashe (U.C.L.A.), though he did leave Stanford after one year.
Brady, 25, who plays Naomi Osaka on Thursday night, is the first former collegian to make the women’s semifinal since 1987. Billie Jean King, who went to the California State University, Los Angeles, was the last woman who attended college to make the final, in 1974.
On the men’s side, J.J. Wolf, 21, fresh off a stellar career at Ohio State, made it to the third round at this year’s U.S. Open. Cameron Norrie, 25, who is British and attended Texas Christian University, also made the final 32, beating the No. 9 seed, Diego Schwartzman, along the way.
“It’s coming back because players have gotten so big, so strong, so good, that it is almost impossible for a 17-year-old to compete with the big players,” Jimmy Arias, director of the tennis program at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., said of the allure of college.
Forty years ago, Arias was 15, holding his own against players in the top 100. He turned pro at 16 in 1980 and by 1983, he was No. 6 in the world. “I don’t think there’s any way today that a 15-year-old boy could beat a top 100 player,” he said.
Brady said she decided to go to college for a very simple reason: She was not good enough to play professionally.
“If you were to tell me that when I left, if I were to go to college in 2013 at U.C.L.A. and seven years from then I would be in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, I would probably laugh,” Brady said the other day, before she crushed Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan in that quarterfinal. “I wasn’t ready to play on the big stage. I definitely wasn’t ready to perform or compete with any of these other players.”
Brady has been something of a surprise since the beginning of her tennis life. Her father, Pat, worked in student services at Evert Academy, which John Evert founded with his sister, Chris, the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, and their father, Jimmy. One night, John Evert’s secretary told him there was a young girl hitting on the courts who was not a student. “She said, ‘I don’t know who she is, but she is really good. You should go have a look,’” he recalled during an interview on Wednesday.
When Pat Brady saw Evert watching, he wandered over and told him the 10-year-old was his daughter. Evert enrolled her in the program the next day.
During her high school years, Brady’s talent was obvious. At tournaments, other players, coaches and parents all took notice of the 5-foot-11 girl with the big serve and whipping forehand. But Brady could not figure out how to win consistently.
Stella Sampras-Webster, the coach at U.C.L.A., said the first time she saw Brady play during a recruiting trip at Evert Academy, she could see Brady was gifted athletically and had all of the shots.
“She just hadn’t figured out yet what to do with them,” Sampras-Webster said. “She made errors because of her poor selection.”
At U.C.L.A., Brady took every opportunity to hit with teammates or anyone else at her level. One of the major disadvantages of college tennis is that the N.C.A.A. limits how much time coaches can spend with players. So anyone with hopes for a pro career has to have the discipline to train outside of organized team activities.
Sampras-Webster said she would often see Brady hitting with members of the men’s team or even male club players, or alone on the courts serving a bucket of balls. After two seasons that included an N.C.A.A. team championship, Brady decided she was ready to give pro tennis a shot.
Martin Blackman, the director of player development for the United States Tennis Association, said Brady showed the opportunity to get to the top ranks of the pros through the college ranks was increasingly hard to dismiss.
“So much of that is dependent on the program, the coach, and the commitment of the player,” Blackman said. “If those are in place, you can kind of duplicate a part of the pathway in college as opposed to grinding it out on tour.”
Of course, as long as there are teen stars, like the 16-year-old Coco Gauff, succeeding on the court and reaping the financial rewards, turning professional will always be a first choice. Gauff and two other girls born in 2004, Robin Montgomery and Katrina Scott, are living proof that a college scholarship will remain Plan B, even though only Scott won a match at the U.S. Open this year.
It is, though, a safer and far less costly choice, since being a top player requires paying for a coach and physiotherapist and others, and having a parent, if you are a teenager, to travel. In most cases, there are only three primary sources to finance that — family, sponsors and prize money. Anyone who does not win will not have a sponsor for very long, and having an education to fall back on is never a bad thing.
“Our sport is dysfunctionally expensive,” John Evert said. “If you are going to go out there and forego college, you better have a good team around you and you better have a lot of money.”