Brandi Braverman has a tennis court in the back yard of her home at the foot of the Encino hills. She has three cats: one is named “Ace,” as in service ace, one is named “French,” as in French Open, and one is named “Wimbledon,” as in the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.
Braverman, 15, also has four tennis coaches, one of whom played at Wimbledon and all of whom believe one day Brandi could play at Wimbledon, too.
“I was an aggressive baseliner; Brandi is an aggressive baseliner,” said Karen Shin, a four-time All-American at the University of California who later competed in Wimbledon and the French Open in a brief professional career. “She’s killing me now.”
Shin, 28, one of Braverman’s favorite practice partners, was a heralded junior who won the Southern Section singles title during her senior year at Chaminade High in 1984-85.
Unlike Shin, Braverman has won no major championships, but they have not been out of reach. She earned a year-end Southern California ranking of No. 7 last year in 16s. Playing 14s in 1993, she was ranked No. 3. Braverman hasn’t won any high school titles and is not likely to, because she withdrew from Buckley to enter a home-study program last fall.
She is good enough to have qualified to play in the United States Tennis Assn. national championships, however, which start today in San Jose.
But Braverman, at best, is considered a dark horse to win the 128-player draw in the 18-and-under division.
Sleek yet powerful, Braverman has not been groomed for success in the juniors. Instead, her coaches believe they are slowly developing a player who will be a force on the Grand Slam circuit.
“My brother beat Jim Courier 10 times in a row in the 12-and-under division,” said Eric Crabb, Braverman’s primary coach. “But Courier was developing weapons.”
Now Crabb, a Toronto native whose pro career was cut short by an automobile accident, has Braverman armed with some heavy artillery, including a natural topspin backhand shot that she hits with two hands, aggressive service returns and a first serve that now has her young opponents shuddering.
“I’d say it’s a good 100 miles per hour,” Crabb said. “And it’s going to get bigger.
“I know she’s destined to be a pro. She’s got that special something. You can see it in a person’s eyes--that magic. I think Brandi has it.”
Others who tutor Braverman agree. Like former pro Nels Van Patten, now an actor and movie producer, and Shin, who left the tour for a career as an attorney.
“I’d love for her to play at Cal,” Shin said. “But I’m afraid she’ll turn pro.”
Unlike many relationships between coaches and promising players, both sides seem to accept Braverman’s results in junior tournaments while she works strictly and patiently on fundamentals.
"[Wimbledon champion Pete] Sampras never won a national title as a junior,” she said. “And Nels’ brother, Vince, they wouldn’t take him at Pepperdine to play last position. He said, ‘OK, I’ll try out for the pros.’ And he ends up [No.] 12 in the world.”
Said Crabb, “I met her when she was 10. I instilled in her that winning was not important at that age. But developing weapons was. She would take her lumps now and win later.”
The victories are starting to come for a girl who has always given up size to her opponents--she’s 5 feet 5, 120 pounds--but is showing superior athletic ability and confidence.
After losing in the second round of the main draw of the Southern California sectional 18-and-under championships in June, Braverman rallied to win the consolation draw and place fifth in the key qualifier for this week’s nationals.
Braverman is not seeded in San Jose, but she issued a warning in February that she can compete with anybody when she defeated three other national competitors--sisters Mugette and Violette Ahn of Los Angeles and Amanda Augustus of Palos Verdes--to get to the final of a tournament in Fullerton.
Mugette Ahn and Augustus are seeded ninth and 11th at the nationals.
“I’m starting to make my move now,” Braverman said. “It’s exciting, not to do it when you’re 13 or 14--like a lot of people do and they burn out--but when you’re 16 or 17.”
Said Crabb: “It’s a good feeling for me, knowing that we made the right decisions. And I give her credit, because there were lots of times when she came off the court with tears in her eyes.”
Braverman’s play in previous national events has not been noteworthy. In 1994, she lost in the second round of the 16-and-under USTA championships and was a first-round loser at the Florida Easter Bowl, a top national invitational.
“Last year and the year before, I wasn’t losing matches I shouldn’t lose,” she said. “But I wasn’t winning anything substantial. And that’s OK. But OK’s not good enough.”
And maybe it took her a while to realize that. Van Patten said Braverman had no specific goals and lacked discipline on the court.
“She was like a loose horse,” Van Patten said. “She had
just unbelievable ability, but not so the control. She had terrific power. She just pulverized the ball. It amazes me to see such a little girl hit the ball so powerfully.
“I just made her believe not every shot is designed to be a winner.”
Van Patten said Braverman’s success in Fullerton was no coincidence, because it was the first tournament in which she stayed patient.
“She enjoyed being out there,” he said. “She slowed down. She took in the moments. She always seemed to rush before.”
A self-described tomboy who is a superb swimmer, a terror in table tennis and talented enough to throw a baseball from the outfield warning track to the infield of a high-school diamond on the fly, Braverman is learning to harness her aggression.
Which might not have been so easy after Crabb told Braverman she could play tennis like a man.
“I had a futuristic vision and now I have a player to attack it with,” he said. “I said to her, ‘No woman has come along with a big serve, a big forehand and great hands at the net. We could do something revolutionary here.’
“And that got Brandi excited.”
But Braverman doesn’t expect her futuristic game to crystallize as soon as this week.
“I really believe I can beat these girls--and I will,” she said. “But everyone develops differently. Both of my parents developed real late. I still have some growing left.”