D’Arcy MaineESPN.com9 minutes of reading
JENNIFER BRADY FELT a pop in her left heel chasing a ball in her second-round match at the 2021 Cincinnati Open. But even with the searing pain and her inability to finish the match against Jelena Ostapenko, she had no idea as she hobbled off the court that it would be the last time she would play a competitive match for nearly two years.
That pop turned out to be a torn plantar fascia, and that, combined with a stress fracture in her right knee suffered shortly after, has led the 28-year-old Brady on a brutal journey filled with treatment and surgery, stops and starts, uncertainty and doubt. Now she is finally back.
Once ranked as high as No. 13 in the world, Brady made his long-awaited return to competition at an ITF W100 event in Granby, Canada last week after 698 days. Steeped in nerves from the day before her first match back and unsure of what to expect of herself, Brady won her opener, 6-2, 6-3, against Kyoka Okamura. After the match, she simply wrote: “About. Damn. Time.” on Instagram.
Brady lost her next match but is now scheduled to play the full slate of US Open series events – starting with next week’s Mubadala Citi DC Open – and is more than anything relieved to be back on tour where she knows she belongs.
“I’m just so happy to be back playing and competing,” Brady told ESPN on Saturday. “I wish I could have got more games in sooner with the big dogs again, but it will only help me test my level and see where I am and then I can learn and improve and get back on the training ground and work on some things and then try to get ready for the next tournament.
“But whatever, this is what I want to do or I would have given up a while ago.”
THERE NEVER IS a good time for a professional athlete to get injured, but it couldn’t have gotten any worse for Brady. In 2020 and 2021 she played the best tennis of her career. She won her first WTA title in Lexington in August 2020, then reached her first major semi-final the following month at the US Open – a highly memorable clash against eventual champion Naomi Osaka. A few months later in February, she made her first major final appearance at the Australian Open.
While she lost to Osaka again in that final, it only inspired greater goals as she left Melbourne.
“I felt like I was starting to find my game and was so close to hitting the top 10 to do something big,” Brady told ESPN in April. “Then that’s when the s— hit the fan, you could say… I think, honestly, the last pain-free game I’d played was in Australia.”
Brady began to feel discomfort in his left foot around March 2021, but did not think it was anything serious and continued to play. But it got progressively worse, and when clay season rolled around, she compensated and began experiencing pain elsewhere as a result, including debilitating back spasms. She skipped the grass court season to give her body time to recover for the Tokyo Olympics and the summer hard court program.
The pain didn’t go away completely, but she returned in time for Tokyo, where she was upset in the first round and then played in Cincinnati. It was there, in the match against Ostapenko, that she believes she tore the plantar fascia.
Because she was able to walk and put weight on the foot, the tournament’s medical staff said it could not be a tear and was instead acute inflammation. Accepting this diagnosis as fact, she resumed training for the US Open a few days later. During an on-site practice session in New York, she went to hit a serve and felt a crack in her right knee. An MRI scan revealed a stress fracture that forced her to withdraw from the tournament a day before her first round match. She was scheduled to play Emma Raducanu, the qualifier who won the title.
Brady was disappointed not to be able to follow up her breakthrough from the year before, but didn’t think she would be out for too long. By the end of October, however, the pain in her foot had not improved. An MRI showed that the plantar fascia was partially torn. It was a devastating realization.
“It was a lot of wasted time,” Brady said. “It had become chronic at that point because it was injured and not really healing properly. There was a lot of scar tissue.”
Since surgery was not an option for a partial tear, Brady began wearing a boot to aid in his recovery. She was still determined to play at the 2022 Australian Open. But when mid-December arrived and she was still unable to hit balls in practice, she knew a trip Down Under was out of the question. She withdrew from the tournament.
Brady stayed home while her friends and peers started the new season halfway around the world. She left her Orlando-area home for a temporary sojourn in Southern California — not far from where she had once led UCLA to an NCAA title — for a new landscape and to do some guest commentary on the Tennis Channel. She seemed upbeat about her return while on TV. “Things are looking good, hopefully I’ll be back on the field very, very soon,” Brady told viewers in February 2022.
She believed it when she said it – in fact, she had targeted the following month for her comeback – but soon discovered she had developed osteochondritis dissecans lesions in her knee and needed surgery. She hoped the procedure would at least help with the lingering pain, but when she returned to training, the pain in both her knee and foot was severe.
Brady was back to square one, seven months after that fateful day in Cincinnati.
“I got nowhere,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m still in the same boat.’ I have made zero progress. If anything, I’ve gone back. I just started having anxiety and thought, ‘Oh God, will I ever be able to recover or play again?’ Just bad thoughts. I started to freak out and I just wasn’t in a good place mentally.”
Brady had hoped to be back in time for the 2022 US Open, but when that didn’t happen, she decided to attend as a spectator instead. She also participated in the Cincinnati Open. It changed everything.
“I needed to get out of Florida, see all my friends and just remind myself what life on tour is like,” Brady said. “It was a total mental reboot for me. Watching other matches reminded me of the good and the bad, just the rollercoaster of emotions you feel. Winning, losing, feeling like s— when you lose a match, wanting to break all your rackets, all of it. The adrenaline of it all… Being [on site] made me realize how much I missed it all.”
While at the US Open, Brady met with Ola Malmqvist, the USTA’s director of coaching, and Mark Kovacs, a renowned tennis performance physiologist. Together, they devised a plan to get Brady back on the field and found an expert to reevaluate her injuries.
Since then, Brady has worked almost every day with Malmqvist at the USTA’s National Campus in Orlando, as well as with a full-time physical therapist and other coaches. She had hoped to play the Australian Open at the start of the year, but realized her body just wasn’t in fighting shape after such a long break.
“Jenny has followed every part of the plan we laid out for her, but she’s one of those people who loves tennis and she’s always exaggerated things a little bit,” Malmqvist told ESPN in May. “We try to make sure we take everything one step at a time, don’t push too hard and don’t skip anything. We have a saying that we’ve stolen: ‘Hard work works, but smart hard work works even harder.’ That’s really what we’ve been trying to follow.”
WITH HIS FOOT and the knee feeling better, the team did a lot to make sure she didn’t injure anything else since she resumed regular training on the court. For the first few days of training, she lay on her bed and couch for hours at the end of the day, unable to move.
“I had to get used to the intensity and all the little muscles in my feet and ankles and everywhere else,” she said.
Brady ramped up her training in late March and first shared publicly that she was eyeing the French Open for her return in an interview with Rennae Stubbs. She didn’t officially call to compete at Roland Garros until early May, as she wanted to make sure it was the right choice and didn’t want to jeopardize all her months of progress and hard work. Just having it as an option was the emotional boost she needed.
“There’s finally light at the end of the tunnel,” Brady said a week before confirming she would play. “Let me tell you, I have to get out of this damn cave. I can’t wait.”
But like so many of Brady’s plans over the past two years, it didn’t work out.
A few days before she was due to board her flight to Paris, Brady again ran down a ball, this time on a practice field, when she felt pain in her right foot. She immediately underwent scans and a medical assessment. It was ultimately diagnosed as a bone bruise. Her doctors assured her it wasn’t serious, but told her it could develop into a rupture if she gambled on it. They advised her not to play tennis for a week and a half and to rest in the meantime.
When the French Open got underway, Brady was 4,500 miles away from where she wanted to be, both literally and figuratively.
“It was tough because there was the build up to finally being able to play and then it was just another Grand Slam that went to waste,” Brady said. “And then it was like, ‘Oh my god.’ Am I ever will be able to come back?’ Those thoughts started creeping back in.”
But Brady refused to let the latest setback deter her for long. She continued her strength and conditioning training while resting her foot and was back on the practice field the following week, pain-free. Without enough time to properly prepare for the grass season, she turned her focus to the hard courts and planned her return.
This time the plan stuck. Using his protected ranking of No. 14, Brady was able to gain entry to Granby, as well as the tournaments in Washington DC, Montreal, Cincinnati and then the final major of the year at the US Open. According to Brady, none of the tournaments offered her a wild card and she is determined to make the best use of each event to improve her ranking each week and be able to receive direct entry into tournaments before she maxes out the 12 tournament limit in her protected ranking. She is currently ranked No. 1055 after her second round exit at Granby.
Brady does not have a full-time trainer and has not actively sought one, but she continues to work with Malmqvist. Since he works with many players through the USTA, he was not with her on site in Granby, but they spoke several times on the phone. But his absence meant Brady was thrown back into the touring life on his own, with all that that entailed. So after arriving in Granby — a small town about an hour east of Montreal — Brady found himself in his hotel room trying to navigate the dreaded practice field scheduling system and waiting what felt like forever for the next day’s schedule to come out.
It was annoying. It was boring. It was exactly what she had wanted.
“I thought it was going to be so different being back and then I realized so quickly, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s the same s—, just another day. Same people. Same headache. Nothing has changed,” Brady said. “But I know I’m extremely fortunate to be doing what I’m doing. Dealing with this, constantly living out of a suitcase, somewhere for a week or two and so on to the next, but I don’t mind. I enjoy it.
“That’s our life, that’s the life of a professional tennis player.”