Donning a gray sweatsuit, Brienne Minor stood draped over a railing next to the court and watched. There was the occasional cheer, a passing conversation here, a word of encouragement there. But mostly, just silence.
It was the Michigan Invitational — the final exhibition tune-up for the Michigan women’s tennis team on Jan. 21 — and Minor was sitting out the singles round.
“Mhmm. She’s good. She’s fine,” said Michigan coach Ronni Bernstein, tentatively. “… Not overdoing it with her.”
It’s been 20 months now since Minor watched a forehand return from Florida’s Belinda Woolcock sail long, flung her racket in the air, clenched her fists and cemented her place in history. The first Michigan woman — and the first Black woman — to win the NCAA singles title. From unseeded fairy tale to national narrative in the blink of an eye. Twenty months since reaching the apex of her sport. Twenty months that might now feel more like 20 years.
“I just like kind of, at the end of it, I just couldn’t really believe that it happened,” Minor told The Daily last week. “… I just remember I felt really relaxed that week. I was just having fun, and it was like some of the best tennis I’ve played.”
Her rise was chronicled in the New York Times, Washington Post and The Michigan Daily, among others. It’s one of tremendous athletic achievement — a supernova hot streak, a historic week, a generational achievement.
It is the centrality of Minor’s story, but it is not the final chapter. Minor, then a sophomore, played in the US Open. She handled droves of media requests and a sudden influx of fame. And she did it all before the age of 20. But, with two years of school left and no desire to tempt professional fate just yet, Minor had to face a question as bewildering as it was simple.
The predicament is inherently front-facing, an unnatural vantage point for Minor. The thing to understand about Brienne Minor is that, even as she reached the pinnacle of her sport, etched her name in the throes of Michigan lore, ascended to stardom, it was never about her.
Nor was it about her when those fortunes flipped.
It was early March 2018 when Brienne Minor dialed the phone.
This was not what her junior season was supposed to look like, and she knew it. Those around her had insisted she would emerge from knee surgery in the summer of 2017 stronger. But as the pain persisted, frustration festered. She went nearly two months without registering a singles win to start the season.
This was far from Minor’s first encounter with knee issues. She has battled patellar tendinitis in both knees for much of her playing career. It has loomed menacingly in the subtext of her career; an injury which demands rest, for an athlete naturally resistant to it.
Minor had surgery after the 2017 season and sat out the fall 2018 season to ensure, she hoped, a full recovery. But when that promised full recovery never truly came, unease grew.
“The pain got to a certain point where it was constantly on her mind and constantly affecting her matches,” said Ronit Yurovsky, a former teammate and now-volunteer assistant coach for the Wolverines. “But I think with that being said, there’s a little bit more of a mental side to it as well.”
That toll manifested itself on the court, where the reigning NCAA Singles Champion went several months without winning a singles match. And the pressure of that inescapable pedestal — reigning NCAA Singles Champion — did her no favors.
“I was just really sad all the time that I couldn’t get it done for my team,” Minor said. “Over and over again.”
In the midst of that drought, Minor turned to Yurovsky. The two have talked frequently since they were teammates in 2016. During Minor’s improbable run in 2017, Yurovsky insisted she take an ice bath after the first night to minimize wear and tear during the grueling week. “And Bri hates ice baths,” Yurovsky said. “It’s one of the things she absolutely dreads.” It became a rite of superstition — reluctantly climbing in the cold tub night after night if for no other reason than she’d done it the night before.
But this time around, the problem was more complex. And the answer couldn’t be chalked up to superstition.
“I just tried to let her know that it’s OK, you know,” Yurovsky said. “Just because now you have this added pressure, it doesn’t mean that it’s not OK to lose here and there. It’s just sort of how you’re able to get through it. And I told her that it just takes one or two when you get your confidence back.”
Minor considers that conversation a turning point in her senior season. She notched a 6-2, 6-1 win over Iowa’s Zoe Douglas on Mar. 16, her first singles victory of the year. She then followed it up with three more straight-set wins to re-calibrate her season and, perhaps, more than that.
Minor finished the year 11-7 in singles matches, including 8-1 in Big Ten action. She also was instrumental in helping lead the Wolverines to a Big Ten Tournament title, just the second in program history.
But her return to winning ways served more as a Band-Aid to the issues still beneath the surface. Asked whether she felt 100 percent at any point last season, Minor does not hesitate.
“Uh, no,” Minor said, “because after my procedures the pain still came back in my knees. So I was definitely never physically 100 percent.”
What about now?
“Nope, definitely not.”
She will have knee surgery in the offseason, and perhaps in a different context — or for a different athlete — she would get the surgery done now. For Minor, that is not a consideration.
But Minor details the minutiae of her injuries and struggles with an upbeat tone. Were it not for the words coming out of her mouth, it would seem just as plausible she was sharing her favorite memories from that week in Athens, Ga.
Not an ounce of regret. Not a hint of fear. Just a constant, bright smile.
So, here is Brienne Minor, 20 months removed from a life-altering achievement, sitting in an office, neither effusive of her past nor daunted by her uncertain future. She is not tethered to her achievements nor unraveled by any of the misfortune. Just Bri to most. Bri-yonce, to some.
Perhaps that’s simply a fortune Minor has earned. Her story comes with the inherent security blanket of permanence. Minor has accomplished more in her 21 years on earth than most ever will; and it’s basic human nature — to a degree — to rest on those laurels. At least, that’s how most would see it.
Those closest to her would undoubtedly resist that kind of egotistical framing.
“She is very much herself at all times, which is, on one hand, just so remarkable,” said Mira Rudor-Hook, Minor’s doubles teammate for two seasons. “We all go through phases of just self-doubt — she also had just a lot of expectations on her. And, honestly, I felt like she actually navigated that very, very well. And it also made a massive impact on our team.
“We all knew she was coming back from that and we now had a national champion on our team. Day-in, day-out, she’s just so humble, it does massive things to just how we all interact together. I would say I didn’t see a difference, honestly. I would just be like that’s Bri — whether she wins a national title or doesn’t.”
What comes of the twilight of Minor’s college career is yet to be seen — and not entirely up to her. She is playing through the pain that remains; and so far, doing so quite capably, posting a 3-0 singles record in the early going of the spring season.
She has professional aspirations and, the health of her knees permitting, has the talent reach them.
Ask her, though, and she’ll choose to emphasize the importance of her role as a senior leader on a team brimming with potential, currently ranked 13th in the nation. And her goals lie squarely in team success.
“I definitely want (the team) to win the Big Ten Tournament and then also go far in NCAAs,” Minor said. “Obviously the goal is to win it, but, you know, baby steps.”
“I don't know, I just want her to enjoy it,” Rudor-Hook added, on her hopes for Minor. “Like to enjoy the girls and the team and to give herself the credit that she deserves to be honest.”
For Minor, this senior season rests on striking that balance. She cares about the tangible, and what more can be obtained for herself and her teammates. Perhaps equally important, particularly to those around her, though, is appreciating what’s already there.