By Jane Voigt
March 11, 2017 — Kayla Day inspires. She’s 17 and the youngest player at Indian Wells. And, she’s the only unseeded player left in her quarter of the draw as the tournament rolls into the round of sixteen.
Yesterday, the American teen took out Croatian Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 6-4, 5-7, 7-5, winning the last four games of the match. Kayla was succinct in her ability to pull it off, “I just kept fighting and, in the end, it worked out,” she said in her post-match press conference.
The clip of her comment mirrors her movement on court. After a point she swiftly turns and marches to the other side, a rhythm to her motion. Her shots underscore an innate sense of the court well beyond her years, as well. She intuitively knows where to aim the ball without giving away her targets. She thinks ahead, a tough task with the pace of points sometimes a ra-ta-tat-tat of trigger responses.
“I try to be confident, when I go out there,” she told the press.
The victory over Lucic-Baroni was a crucial step to extend Day’s stay at the tournament and set up a clash with the 2015 French Open Champion Garbina Muguruza, seeded number 7. The Venezuelan native is closer in age — she’s 23 — than Lucic-Baroni who is more than twice as old as Day. But the oddity of that difference vanished, as the match began.
“I mean, yeah, I thought about it a little bit, like, before my match,” Day began. “But that didn’t really have an influence when I was actually player her.”
Of course not, Day has been around … like.
She has made her mark on thousands of courts worldwide, rising to number one in U.S. National Rankings in 12s, 14s, 16s, and 18s. In 2016, she climbed to number one in the ITF Junior Rankings, as well, when she won the Junior U. S. Open, reached the semifinals at Wimbledon (Junior Girls), and reached the final at the Orange Bowl in 2015. Not that these achievements are anything to sneeze at, but she also won a wildcard into the main draw of last year’s U.S. Open, after winning the U.S.T.A. Girls 18s National Championship. In January, she won the Australian Open Wild Card Challenge for a berth in the first Grand Slam of the year.
Her first main draw appearance in Indian Wells comes compliments of a wildcard.
“I was really grateful to get offered this wildcard into the tournament,” she began. “It really means a lot that I can play with some of the best players in the world.”
Her WTA debut was less than a year ago at the Connecticut Open. Day earned her first ITF career title plus $50,000 in Macon, Ga., last year. Her highest ranking is her current ranking: 175.
Day is on the taller side at 5-foot-eight. She admits that fitness has been a focus lately. This is a common struggle for juniors moving to the pro tour on both the men’s and women’s sides.
“All the pros are in such good shape,” she said. “I think every match is really tough and really physical, as opposed to the juniors, where, like, the first couple of matches you can — they’re normally a little bit easier. So really stepping up my fitness has been a big part [of my career plan].”
In addition to a growth in her tennis career, Day told reporters she had recently grown. “I have definitely grown, like, an inch in the last year.”
Day’s confidence comes from her serving consistency. It helped her get by Lucic-Baroni, setting up her forehand down-the-line. “I’m able to move my opponents a lot more when I’m serving well,” she added. She’s a lefty, which also gives her serves some natural wiggle that baffles opponents. She likes to be loose — her tossing arm and her hitting arm. “When I get tight it doesn’t work.”
Unlike most teens her age, Day does not have much extra time. When she’s off court, though, she says she likes to go to the beach, play with her three dogs and cook. She admits, “I’m not that good, but sometimes I’m good.” She was born and lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Like all sprouting tennis stars with hopes as high as a skyscraper, Day looks forward to meeting Muguruza tomorrow on court.
“I mean she’s such a great player,” Day began. “I’m really excited to go out there and play her, one of the greatest in the game right now. It should be really fun and a great experience for me.”
To steer clear of pressure that can arise from being on the big stage in front of big crowds, Day reminds herself that “it’s just another match.”
Day may be a cool customer on court, but when she ran into Serena Williams in one of the bigger locker rooms, she was star struck and didn’t talk with the 23-time Grand Slam champion.