Jennifer Brady prepared for the Australian Open in a 355-square-foot hotel room.
Following a positive test for coronavirus from a passenger on her charter flight upon arriving in Melbourne, Brady was forbidden from leaving the room and was required to self-isolate for 14 days.
No access to tennis courts. No gym. No fresh air. No in-person sessions with her coach or trainer.
Brady did what she has done so often throughout her unorthodox tennis career — she adjusted and embraced the unexpected.
She had groceries delivered to her room on the first day so she could eat oats every morning for breakfast. She found Hunky Dory, a chain restaurant known for its fish and chips, and liked it so much she ordered it every day, sometimes twice. She FaceTimed with Sloane Stephens and Anett Kontaveit, who were also in quarantine. She refused to let herself watch Netflix because she knew would get too wrapped up in a series and binge the whole thing from bed. Instead, she enjoyed getting to sleep in.
For training, the 25-year-old hit balls into the mattress pushed up against the wall, did footwork and speed drills around tennis balls on the carpeted floor and used a stationary bicycle and weights that were provided. She stayed positive by keeping things in perspective and thinking of the bigger picture, but still didn’t have many expectations for herself entering the year’s first major.
There were 51 singles players who endured the same hard quarantine protocol as Brady. She is the only one who advanced past the third round. And now, as improbable as it might seem even to herself, she will be playing in the final at the Australian Open on Saturday against Naomi Osaka with a chance for her first Slam title (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). The final appearance is just the latest milestone in Brady’s astonishing, topsy-turvy road to the top of the sport.
“Even before quarantine, I didn’t think I would be where I am right now,” she said after her three-set semifinal win over Karolina Muchova on Thursday. “I wouldn’t say I’m in disbelief. You know, I have definitely been practicing hard, I think I have earned the right to be sitting here, to be playing in a Grand Slam final on Saturday.
“I have put in a lot of work, and I just think it’s crazy to believe — like even watching a Grand Slam final, you look at [the] two players and you’re, like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome that they’re in the final.’ You don’t think about what it feels like if you were in that situation, so I think that the [tides] have turned and I’m here. I’m in that situation.”
Brady was around the game from an early age, and her talent was immediately identifiable. Her father was in charge of student services at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, and Brady would sneak onto empty courts to hit at the end of the day. One day, John Evert was alerted to a potential trespasser and went to check out who was there.
“John walked out to the court and found out that it was Jennifer Brady and watched her for a little bit and saw such athleticism and movement for a 10-year-old,” said John’s sister Chris Evert, the 18-time major champion and ESPN analyst.
“He was very impressed and saw so much potential. He talked to her father right away and she was in the program the next day.”
Brady trained at the Academy for the next eight years, as she played in local tournaments — even against Osaka and her older sister, Mari, who also lived in South Florida — and on the junior circuit. She ranked as high as No. 36 in the world and appeared in three of the four girls’ Grand Slam events, but she wasn’t happy. She was plagued with self-doubt after every loss and from watching others her age succeed.
“I was just doing it because I had to,” she said this week. “Because I had nothing else to do, because I didn’t know what else to do except for going and practicing five hours a day and, you know, just waking up, doing it all over again for, I don’t know, my whole junior career.”
Brady knew she wasn’t emotionally ready to turn professional and made the decision to attend college instead. She went to UCLA, helped lead the Bruins to an NCAA championship during her freshman season and rediscovered her love for the sport. UCLA head coach Stella Sampras Webster knew Brady was special from her first day with the team.
“She just used every single match, every single practice as an opportunity to get better,” Sampras Webster said to ESPN in September. “She didn’t get caught up in any of the other stuff. She knew if she just kept working and stayed focused, she could improve enough to be a pro.”
Brady turned pro after her sophomore season and started playing mostly on the ITF circuit. She won four singles and five doubles titles at that level before she was able to regularly play WTA tournaments in 2016. She reached the fourth round at the Australian Open and the US Open in 2017, but struggled with consistency from week to week.
In an effort to change up her training, she traded the Florida humidity for the German winter to work with her coach, Michael Geserer, during the 2020 preseason. The move took her completely out of her comfort zone, but it seemed to make all the difference. She recorded a win over world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in Brisbane to start the year and moved into the top 50 for the first time.
She defeated Elina Svitolina, another top-10 player, the following month in Dubai and advanced to the event’s semifinals. Following the season’s resumption in August after the five-month break due to the pandemic, she won her first WTA title at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Kentucky.
Weeks later, Brady had her breakthrough Slam at the 2020 US Open — winning all five of her matches en route to the semifinals in straight sets. She faced Osaka for a spot in the final in what is widely considered one of the best matches of the season. In a battle of wills, the two traded serves (neither was broken in the first set) and dazzled with a mesmerizing display of powerful hitting and athleticism.
Osaka ultimately won 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3, but has talked about the match multiple times in Melbourne, saying she “never had to physically and mentally fight so hard” and how she thinks of it frequently when facing other tough moments on the court.
“It’s easily one of my most memorable matches,” Osaka said Thursday. “I think it was just super high quality throughout. For me, it’s not really surprising at all to see her in another semis or [a] final.”
While not unheard of — former Virginia standout Danielle Collins reached the semifinals at the Australian Open in 2019 — historically there have been few women to play at the NCAA level and then achieve a high level of success on the WTA Tour. On Thursday, Brady became the first former women’s college player to reach a major final since Kathy Jordan in 1983 — an achievement with implications that stretch far beyond just Brady.
“Jenny’s story sends a good message to our junior players who aren’t quite ready to turn pro out of high school,” said Martin Blackman, the USTA’s general manager of player development. “It’s inspiring, [and shows] there’s not just one path. The biggest shift in the game over the last 15 years has been the longevity of what players can do well into their 30s. So for somebody who struggles a little bit, gets stuck [ranked] in the 100s, if they focus on getting better, or if they go to college, they still have an opportunity to make a breakthrough in their late 20s.”
Brady entered the Australian Open ranked No. 22 and will rise to a career-high No. 13 by reaching the final. A win would jump her up one additional place to No. 12 and catapult her to a new level of tennis stardom. She knows the stakes heading into the biggest match of her career, along with all the expectations and hopes that go with it, and recognizes experience is not on her side against Osaka, a three-time major winner. But she has become familiar with the unfamiliar and is excited for the opportunity.
“I think on Saturday I’ll definitely come out and I’ll definitely be nervous 100%, but there is no hiding it,” she said. “I just have to embrace it and enjoy the moment.”