Gail Brodsky sat on the sofa in her Kirkland, Washington, home to watch the 2017 US Open final between Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. She was, in her own words, “out of shape, kind of being a mom and tennis coach, with no other thoughts” when she had another thought.
“I had this overwhelming sense that I wanted to experience that feeling of being out there again,” Brodsky, a 27-year-old mother of two, told ESPN.com this week. “I wanted to experience it all over now that I’ve learned to love the game. If I looked back 10 years from now, there would be no questions. I’d know I gave tennis my best shot.”
Brodsky shared her desire with her husband, fellow tennis pro Mark Hanson, who said, “Great, go for it.” Thus, Hanson is presently juggling his teaching duties at Kirkland’s Eastside Tennis Center with looking after the couple’s toddlers (son Grayson is 3, and daughter Brooklyn is almost 2) while Brodsky is busy trying to lock down a wild-card entry into the US Open. Last Sunday, Brodsky jumped into the lead in the competition for that automatic berth by winning the $60,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Ashland, Kentucky.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Brodsky said.
The daughter of Jewish, Ukrainian immigrants who settled in the Manhattan Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, Brodsky developed her game on public courts and seemed to have the brazen temperament self-mythologizing New Yorkers celebrate.
She first earned a measure of fame at the 2008 US Open. Just 17, she earned a wild card thanks to her win against Coco Vandeweghe in the junior U.S. National Hard Court Championships. Brodsky lost in the first round of that Open against then-No. 14 Agnes Szavay but won over legions of fans with her enthusiasm.
But the spotlight went away just as quickly. By mid-2012, Brodsky said, she was “burned out … I never imagined I’d return to pro tennis.”
As a youth, she said she felt tremendous pressure from her parents, Eduard and Julia. It has been about a decade since she has had any contact with them, some of it because of the pressure they put on her to succeed in tennis, some of it for reasons she prefers not to discuss. But she did say, “I’m kind of from this generation … the daughter of immigrants who was bred to be a tennis player. That put a lot of pressure on me, and it didn’t allow me to develop a true love for the sport.”
In 2012, shortly after failing to qualify at the US Open, she lobbed in a call to Hanson, whom she had previously met at a small tournament. She wanted to move to the Pacific Northwest but knew she would have to work. “I felt I needed to get away from tennis, so what did I do?” Brodsky laughed as she answered her own question: “I asked for a job teaching tennis.”
Hanson brought her on board at the ESTC. They soon became close friends, but it was three years before they started dating. Hanson’s passion for the game began to win over Brodsky. “Coaching inspired me,” she said. “Mark showed me how to love the sport. I learned to enjoy playing, and to play without pressure or fear.”
Bringing those lessons to the high-stakes WTA game was an entirely different proposition. After having her children, Brodsky knew she had to get into better shape if she hoped to successfully reinvent herself, and she went at it full bore. The task fell to Donny Mateaki, a trainer who played football at the University of Washington and who helped her shed 50 pounds earlier this year. “The fitness part has been brutally tough,” she said. “But it has allowed me to play through weeks and go through qualis in pretty good shape.”
But “brutally tough” is something Brodsky already knew about from her experience as a mother.
“Honestly, having kids was kind of a blessing as far as tennis is concerned,” she said, explaining that when her son was born, she was in labor for more than three days and “in full contractions the entire time.” Finally, she delivered Grayson via an emergency C-section. She said, “Nothing I go through on a tennis court will ever match up with that.”
Ranked just inside the WTA Top 1000 at the start of the year, Brodsky is up to No. 332 (her career high: No. 182). A 5-foot-6 right-hander, she’s not built to slug it out with her more imposing peers, but Brodsky’s strengths always skewed more toward the intangibles — chief among them her competitive grit and tenacity. Those qualities don’t carry a use-by date.
Brodsky has traveled far from the public courts of her youth. She misses New York pizza, and said she was upset recently when Kirkland’s one decent bagel deli (Einstein Bros.) closed down. As for the rest of it, she doesn’t miss it at all.