Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Madison Brengle is 46: a Saga in Three Acts (So Far)

It was hope, far more than expectation, that led me to tweet that second sentence 13 months ago during the Australian Open qualifying tournament. Hope based, to be sure, on some empirical evidence: improving results in tournaments, consistent wins over players she *should* beat according to the rankings, and respectable scorelines - even some upsets - over higher ranked players. But it was hope nonetheless.  Hope that a career ITFer without overwhelming weapons ... or, it seemed, much luck ... hope that this outsider could cross, however briefly, that threshold that feels to us rankings junkies like passing through a barrier into another, far more glamorous, world.

The Top 100.

There are really only three important ranking markers in professional tennis, and undoubtedly they are a function of our shared decimal system. There's #1. There's Top 10. And there's Top 100.

Other rankings achievements are important, and every new career high reached is rightly celebrated, but those are the only three that carry any mystical significance. Number 1 is self-evident. Top 10 allows you a certain swagger once you enter it - an sense of having "made it" that you can carry with you for the rest of your life. And Top 100 means you're really an honest-to-god tour-level pro. (Oh and if you hold that ranking during the right times of the year, it now means a very, very nice set of paychecks from Tennis Australia, the French Tennis Federation, the LTA and the USTA.)

This is the story of one woman's arduous, but rewarding, journey to the outer rung of the three rankings achievements.

Act I: Junior Wonder

Madison Brengle in 2006
Madison Brengle's career arc reflects at some level her game style: long stretches in which she is consistent, but far from spectacular - hints along the way of something unique, perhaps even special - but at times you almost wonder why she's out there competing against these power players. And then BAM. Out of nowhere, a backhand down the line winner. A WTA final. An Australian Open fourth round.

Her game, like her personality, is a bit quirky. For fun, let's go with the thesis that her quirkiness is directly connected to the quirkiness of her home state.

Things to know about Delaware, for the unfamiliar:
  • It prides itself on being the First State. That's its motto. That's its thing.
  • A lot of corporations are incorporated there - like, half of all publicly traded corporations in the nation - thanks to its very kind corporate laws. It's really kind of a joke.
  • It's the state of our most interesting Vice President, Joseph Biden.
  • Its nickname, the Blue Hen State, has to do with animal cruelty. Apparently, that's the breed of chicken Delaware soldiers used to use for cockfighting back in the Revolutionary War days.
  • It's real small. Like, you could fit 3 Delawares inside a New Jersey (itself the fourth-smallest state) and still have room left over for a Rhode Island.
  • It's one of the least populated states, is not known for tennis, is not itself home to a major metropolitan area, and yet for years had a World Team Tennis team, the Delaware Smash (World Champions in 2003 y'all!).
  • It has produced precisely one tennis player of note. Madison Brengle.
I learned in doing some research into this article (our origin story takes place before I was paying attention to junior tennis) that Brengle had a fabulous junior career: Girls 12s national champion, Les Petits As finalist, Eddie Herr 16s winner at age 14.  The daughter of a Dover tennis pro, Gaby, Brengle excelled at the Junior ITF level, taking the 2005 USTA grass court title in nearby Philadelphia at age 15, and making the quarters, again on grass, at Roehampton the following year, losing in straight sets to top seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  Following a 3rd round loss to her biggest US rival, Lauren Albanese, at the US Open that year, Brengle went on a tear: semis of a Grade 1 in Kentucky, 4-0 in Junior Fed Cup singles, semis of the Pan American Closed, semis of the Orange Bowl, and then a run to the final of the Australian Open, where as the #16 seed she lost in two tiebreaks to Pavs.

That result suddenly put Brengle into something of a spotlight (beyond just the Delaware News Journal). She was the centerpiece of this odd Wall Street Journal article:

A 'Soviet' Plan to Save U.S. Tennis

Why a 17-year-old, ranked 277th, will be center stage in the sport come Tuesday

...Madison Brengle, a 17-year-old from Delaware, is a test case for a new approach to producing American tennis stars. Under the guidance of U.S. tennis's not-for-profit overseer, a team of coaches and trainers have focused on her for the past seven months. She goes weeks without seeing her parents, trains six hours a day and runs until it hurts.

Madison Brengle in Australia
Madison Brengle in Australia 
"I don't do treadmills well," she says.

Prompted by a dearth of emerging stars, the U.S. Tennis Association's new tack emulates intensive athletic programs elsewhere, including France and Spain. The USTA long had left such work to private academies, which critics say rob prodigies of their youth and downplay academics, and the governing body's involvement evokes Soviet-bloc Olympic tactics that run counter to the American ideal of organically growing athletes on playgrounds, rather than manufacturing them. Sensitive to such perceptions, the USTA says it won't train preteens and will emphasize life outside of tennis, including academics.

Ms. Brengle's tournament results have improved, propelling her up an extraordinary 231 ranking spots since January. She challenged a top player in the Australian Open and reached its junior finals. She recently secured the U.S.'s lone women's "wild card" entry in the French Open qualifying round; she'll be one of 96 women vying for 12 slots.

(It's worth noting that this article came a year before Patrick McEnroe became head of player development for USTA.)

More: a title at the Grade 1 Astrid Bowl in Belgium (beating Camila Giorgi in the Round of 16) and then another, even higher-profile run to a major final: Wimbledon, where she led Ula Radwanska 62 30 (and twice had a point for 4-0) before losing the last 12 games, and the match.  As Colette Lewis reported at the time:
Brengle, the seventh seed, suffered a pulled stomach muscle serving in the second game of the third set, but she was the first to admit that the match slipped away from her well before that.

“She played well, and I just got really tight,” said the 17-year-old from Delaware. “When I was up a set and 3-0, she started serving really well, and that made it a lot harder to finish it out.”
Still, Brengle was riding high. College, once a distinct possibility, was no longer in the picture and she turned pro. She won multiple USTA playoffs to get wildcards into the main draws of majors. She was getting some nice ITF Pro Circuit results and her ranking was rising. She finished 2009 as the WTA #155, and top 100 was clearly in her future.

Nobody thought it would take another 5 years, though.

Act II: Persevering Pro

I asked Colette Lewis if she was surprised it took Madison so long to make her breakthrough:
"One thing I’ve learned about myself the past decade is that I’m way too optimistic about someone’s chances to reach the Top 100, but yes, I’m surprised it took her this long. Reaching two junior slam finals seemed to bode well for a steady climb, but I know she has struggled with injuries and illness at times, which makes her perseverance all the more impressive. When I saw her as a junior, she was a tenacious competitor and that turned into a much more important trait in the arc of her career than it was in any individual junior match."
Did some of the hype negatively affect Brengle as it has countless other young US players? I can only speculate, but it wouldn't surprise me if perhaps that happened a bit. You can find discussion board chatter hinting of "off-court" issues along with injuries. I don't know the full story and I won't speculate.

In any case, her career stalled - but it never cratered.  Between October 12, 2008, and December 30, 2013, Madison Brengle fluctuated between 150 and 237 in the rankings -- an unusually narrow band reflecting the fact that she never had a long string of wins - in fact, she went title-less between her first win, as a qualifier at a $10K in Baltimore, MD in 2005, and her second, a $25K in 2012 - nor did she have an extended slump or layoff. 

Her relatively consistent ranking, interestingly, meant she made the qualies cut for every grand slam during that time. And every time, she entered qualies.

And every time, she failed to qualify.

24 consecutive majors. Six years of defeats in qualifying. It's a record - I'm sure I remember seeing that it was a record. How could it not be?

In 14 of those majors, she lost in the first round. In six, the second round. And in four, she made the third-and-final round of qualies (FRQ).

However! Only one of those FRQs came in her first twenty attempts.
  • At 2009 Wimbledon, she lost 0&3 to Tatjana Malek (now Tatjana Maria). 
  • Four years later, at the 2013 US Open, she beat #6 seed Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova in straight sets only to lose to Duan Yingying 6-2 in the 3rd. 
  • Then, at the very next major, the 2014 Australian Open, she beat Tereza Smitkova and Shelby Rogers (see tweet at the top of this article) before falling to Irina-Camelia Begu 6-1 in the 3rd. 
  • And two majors later, 2014 Wimbledon, she upset #2 seed Pauline Parmentier and Aliaksandra Sasnovich before another third set loss, this one to Smitkova 6-1. (In between, at the 2014 French Open, she lost 8-6 in the 3rd set of the first round to Paula Kania.)
Something clearly had changed. Three final-round qualies in four majors. And after hitting that #237 low in February 2013, she starting having some solid ITF results to boot: a run to the $50K final in Sacramento in July 2013 (ranking up to #199); a $25K title in Landisville, PA the next month (beating good friend Olivia Rogowska 2&0 in the final; ranking up to #185); a $25K final in Florence, SC in October (losing to Anna Tatishvili 6-4 in the 3rd; ranking up to #153).

Then: the breakthrough.

Sure, it was in a loss, and sure, it was against Sam-Stosur-in-Australia, which can bring out the winner in seemingly anyone. But her performance last year in the first round of the Hobart International, after qualifying comfortably, was the epitome of perseverance. Watch the match below and listen to the commentators: they seem nonplussed when Brengle wins the first set, assured when Stosur wins the second and goes up 5-3 in the 3rd, and something close to incredulous as Brengle comes back, saves 3 match points, and pushes the match to a third set tiebreak. Feel free to skip past the 3 hours of rain delays:

Incredibly, that was Brengle's first match against a Top 40 player since losing 3&2 to #12 Nadia Petrova in Quebec City in 2009. And she nearly won it.  She stayed with her game plan, never got down on herself, and never got intimidated. She knew she could, as they say, compete at this level. (And she looked pretty fit, to boot.)

Next came the Australian Open and my prophecy of the Top 100.

Act III: Redemption

Naturally, fulfilling that prophecy didn't come without a struggle.  Six months passed - during which she played 17 freaking tournaments! - without a haul of more than 30 points in a given tournament.

Then, last July, it all started coming together.  She won her first $50K. In Lexington, Kentucky, she won three-setters against Daria Gavrilova and Melanie Oudin (who lamented afterward,  “She doesn’t hit a lot of winners, but she just get[s the] ball back (sic) and makes you play bad.”) In the final, moved indoor due to weather, she played a bit more aggressively and outclassed a weary Nicole Gibbs, (who, it must be noted, had already secured the USTA Pro Circuit US Open Wild Card by reaching the final). Brengle's exultation after match point told you that, however invested she may or may not have been earlier in her career, she was definitely all in now. Watch it here, along with her very sincere speech at the end. New career high: #128.

The next week: three more wins at a $100K in Vancouver, B.C. New career high: #118.

(c) Jonathan Kelley, 2014 Coupe Banque Nationale 
A month later: a deserved (due to ranking as well as recent results) wildcard into the U.S. Open (no need to qualify!) and her first main draw victory at a major, an authoritative win over #101 Julia Glushko, followed by another main draw win at the next tournament, the WTA indoor event in Quebec (and first win - hell, first appearance - live in front of your favorite blogger (me)!). New career high: #112.

Then: The second $50K title of her career, in Las Vegas, recording five wins (including over Nicole Vaidisova, Kateryna Bondarenko, and Michelle Larcher de Brito) without dropping a set. New career high: 98. The Top 100 promised land.  Prophecy fulfilled.

And she wasn't done: a quick trip to Linz, Austria, and a brilliant, determined run through qualies, a first round win and a lucky walkover vs. Ana Ivanovic. New career high: 88. Australian Open main draw: assured.

One more tournament followed, and then surgery to remove a cancerous growth on her skin (it had been diagnosed two days prior to her breakthrough US Open performance). Recovery. Then back to work.

In 2015 she's 14-3 with 7 Top 100 wins - including her a massive comeback win over Andrea Petkovic, who served for the match in the 2nd set; an honest-to-goodness WTA final in Hobart (New career high: 64); and a fourth round in Melbourne with the whole world watching (or at least those awake at the appropriate hour). Stories again being written about her in, like, THE New York Times. 

But this time the attention isn't hype. It's all very matter-of-fact. She had a long journey. She's here now. She's earned it. New career high: 46.

Yes, Madison Brengle is, as of today, 46 in the world. What was it that made the difference? Full health? A renewed focus or commitment? Her unique game finally gelling? A series of fortunate events (the Ana walkover; the weak Hobart draw; the Petko choke)?

And what does the future hold? Will we see five more years of relative stability - but this time in the main draws of majors? Can she climb juuuuust a bit higher and earn seeds at some of those majors - with chances for more 3rd and 4th round appearances? Or will she bump her head on her ceiling, World #46, and return to the ITF world?

Since I did such a good job of prognosticating last year, let me make one bold prediction for the coming year:

  • Madison Brengle will reach the Top 30 by the end of Wimbledon.

It won't be easy - she'll need to earn over 500 points, or four times as many points as she earned during the same period in 2014.  That means staying healthy, getting a few  favorable draws, and perhaps most important, keeping her wits about her. Playing her game. Not getting caught in the hype (to that end, I hope she's not reading this).

Should that not come to pass, the good news is that she is, as far as I can tell, mature enough to handle it. She has clearly picked up a lot of weapons during her journey - perhaps not a Top 10 forehand, but enough courage, tenacity, and savvy (and a damn good backhand) to turn hope into reality.

Well done, Madison. Welcome to 46. You earned it.

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