There was so much pain, and so much suffering, it took Kayla Day an entire paragraph to list off the injuries and illnesses she has suffered the past five years, since the Santa Barbara native broke through and stormed to the 2016 U.S. Open Junior title.
But as the 23-year-old recounted it all on Thursday, she hardly was complaining. She smiled throughout, and the reason for that is how far she has come since then.
Day was speaking to a roomful of tennis journalists who were suddenly interested in her life’s journey. That’s what happens when you reach the third round of a Grand Slam tournament that no one even expected you to be in.
The 5-foot-8 lefty upset No. 20 Madison Keys in three sets on Thursday in the second round of the French Open, the first time she’s ever reached that prestigious level at a major.
Day’s 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 win over the player who beat her in Day’s first-ever professional Slam match (at that 2016 U.S. Open) officially announced her return to the conversation in the sport she’s loved ever since she started playing at age 7 at the Knowlwood Tennis Club.
Day led 5-2 in the final set and then, after Keys broke and held, the Californian steeled herself and served out the biggest win of her pro career.
“It feels amazing to be in the third round,” Day said. “To get my first Top 20 win at Roland Garros, it’s just amazing.”
Day’s ranking plummeted from 2017-2020 as she struggled with injuries and illness, but last year her rise began again. Her ranking slowly climbed as she played lower-level Challenger (minor league) tournaments, and the U.S.T.A. gave her a wild card into the qualifying tournament of the U.S. Open last August (she fell in the second round).
This year her results have continued to improve, and her ranking of 138 was good enough to get her into the qualifying event of Roland Garros. Day, working with new coach Pat Cash (a former Wimbledon champion), won three straight matches, including a 7-6 thriller in the final round, just to make it into the main draw.
Then she defeated Kiki Mladenovic in the opening round before knocking off Keys. She plays Anna Karolína Schmiedlová in the third round Saturday, and has earned a minimum of $154,000 and a world ranking just outside the Top 100.
Day, who couldn’t stop smiling throughout her press conference, answered questions about her dogs named after Spanish tennis players (Garbine and Rafa) and took time to praise her hometown.
“Santa Barbara is my favorite place in the world,” she said. “I have so many supporters from there, and I just feel like, you know, I definitely feel the Santa Barbara love, even in Paris.”
She also revealed the biggest thing she’s learned about herself.
“I’ve definitely learned that I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was, to just grind my way back like I have,” she said. “That’s something I’ll carry with me through the rest of my career.”
“Because a lot of people, I think, counted me out or didn’t believe in me anymore or whatever, and I just worked super hard and trusted myself.
“And, yeah, now I’m back here.”
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