Even as unseeded Michigan sophomore Brienne Minor mowed down the NCAA Tournament field, upsetting seeded player after seeded player, she never really thought she had a shot to win the national championship.
Until during her final match.
Each round, the 19-year-old took a relaxed, nothing-to-lose approach all the way through that final, which she won in straight sets to become Michigan’s first tennis national champion.
“It’s finally sunk in,” Minor said in a telephone interview this week. “It was an awesome experience for me. It was a happy moment that I got to share with my family and friends. I'm glad I will always have it.”
Minor is now preparing to play in the U.S. Open that begins Monday in New York after receiving a wild-card berth into the main draw. She will face Tunisian Ons Jabeur in a first-round match.
“I never thought I’d be playing at the U.S. Open, like, right now,” Minor said.
She also did not immediately know the history she made by winning the NCAA Division I singles title. Minor became the first African-American woman to win the championship and the first black player, either male or female, to win the national title since Arthur Ashe in 1965.
“I’m definitely proud of it,” Minor said during a break in preparations for the U.S Open and also the American Collegiate Invitational Sept. 7-9 in New York. “I’m hoping young African American players see me as a role model. You know everything going on in the African American community today, it’s something African Americans can look at as a positive. You don’t see a lot of African American players in junior tennis. I hope I can inspire them.”
Minor never saw herself as a role model, but she has embraced it and already has spoken to youngsters, at a USTA training facility in Orlando and some young black children in Chicago, near her home.
“One of the kids in Orlando sent me a fan letter. She wrote a really nice letter,” Minor said. “I’m grateful for that.”
Minor is the youngest of three children. Her older sisters Kristina and Jasmine, an ESPN college tennis reporter, also played Division I tennis. They are big fans of their little sister.
“Even though it’s a great experience and such a great thing for her to be in the U.S. Open for the first time, there was never a doubt in my mind my sister could win there, or win the NCAAs,” Jasmine said. “That’s how we grew up. I’m super excited to support her, but I think my sister is the greatest thing to walk the earth. There’s nothing I believe she cannot achieve.”
Young Brienne watched everything her older sisters went through in junior tennis and learned what to do and not do.
“She has a much more relaxed mentality,” Jasmine said. “Even when she was little – still today -- she asks for two things after a match: ‘When can we see the next Marvel movie or when can we get dessert?’ She’d come off the court after losing, she’d cry a couple minutes and then you’d see her watching a Spider-Man movie.
“She’s able to do that because she’s watched the process. She’s seen it on every level with us. When you’ve been around it as long as she has and you’ve had people before you who built the bridge, when you don’t have to do that, it becomes much easier. It’s easier to have more fun. That’s when she plays her best. She has big goals, but she really does love it, and she really has fun on the court.”
Michigan was Minor’s first college visit, and although she also visited Northwestern and UCLA, she knew she had found a home in Ann Arbor.
“Once I stepped foot on campus, fell in love,” she said. “The team, the coaches, I looked for a family atmosphere and I felt that. I loved everything about Michigan.”
Minor will return to campus with her national title trophy as high-end décor for her residence, and she’s looking forward to getting back to classes and being with her team and facing the challenges inherent with playing matches as the reigning national champion. Her carefree approach to her upcoming U.S. Open appearance is how she anticipates carrying herself into Michigan’s season.
“Approaching matches will be the same,” Minor said. “I try to have the same mentality. Going into the year, I knew after winning the NCAAs, I could have weight of the world on my shoulders for every match, but I’m not going to be like that. I’m going to go have fun. I know I’m not going to win all of them. Everyone loses and anyone can beat anyone.”
But few can make history.
For her sisters, Brienne winning the national championship is a tribute to the three of them, the African American players who came before them and those who will come after.
“I think it means that a lot of the things I’ve been through, that Kristina has been through, that every other woman of color has been through, Chanda Rubin, Serena and Venus Williams, it says that all of that is worth it,” Jasmine Minor said. “My sister is an extremely humble human being. She’s very easy to get along with. She’s always had that gift about her. There is no one more deserving of that title.
“But when I see that, it says a lot of other women, especially young women of color, it’s possible to make those achievements. You set the tone for others to come behind you. As great as Brienne made this whole achievement, I don’t think any of us would have been able to go college and play this sport if we hadn’t seen people who look like us do this. It wouldn’t have been the sport for me. Having them, and having her — it means something to be able to see someone else who looks like you. We’re seeing more and more of that, which is awesome and fantastic. That’s what it means to me.”