As she sat in a small interview room in Melbourne this January, Robin Montgomery could see that her dreams were more within reach than ever before. Nearby on the grounds of the Australian Open, another 15-year-old, Coco Gauff, was playing in the fourth round against the eventual champion Sofia Kenin, having beaten Naomi Osaka, the defending champion, a round earlier.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to be in her shoes soon,” Montgomery, who was competing in the junior tournament there, said in January. “I definitely think it’s more possible now, seeing her doing it. It gives me more motivation to do it, and more belief in myself to be able to accomplish that.”
A month earlier, Montgomery had won the prestigious Orange Bowl title in the 18-and-under division.
“My next goal is to break through the pros, play some 25Ks and hopefully get some wild cards into the bigger tournaments,” Montgomery said. “Then, hopefully, I have an outbreak.”
With a wide, sheepish smile, Montgomery then corrected herself to “breakout.”
Just over a month after leaving Australia, Montgomery would claim her first professional title, winning a $25,000 tournament in Nevada. But before the wild cards to big events could come, there was, in fact, an outbreak, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down professional sports. While Gauff had been able to play Wimbledon as a 15-year-old — capturing the world’s imagination a year earlier — Montgomery was sidelined.
On Monday the wait ended, as Montgomery will made her Grand Slam debut at the United States Open, where she was the youngest player in either singles draw.
She battled admirably and showed her problem-solving abilities to turn a lopsided match into a competitive second set, which she led 3-1 before falling 6-1, 6-3 to 23rd-seeded Yulia Putintseva. Montgomery’s sweeping southpaw power was evident throughout the match, but the undersized Putintseva has made a career of neutralizing big hitters such as Montgomery. Putintseva took advantage of inconsistent serving by Montgomery to ultimately control the match.
Though a part of her was restless during the sport’s hiatus, Montgomery said she found the time at home restorative.
“I’ve been working on my fitness and things I can improve on the court,” she said. “I was changing minor things, because at the end of the day it’s the small details that are going to make you or break you.”
Her longtime coach, Ali Agnamba, said that while the uncertainty was difficult for Montgomery, he was determined to have the time be productive.
“One thing I made clear to her is that we can gain something out of this thing,” Agnamba said. “Physical training and fitness, we can maximize that, and that can be what we gain from the confinement. We tried to stay positive and think about what can happen when things open. Someone, somewhere, is going to be ready; somebody is not going to be ready. We wanted to be the ones ready when things opened up.”
During the stoppage, Montgomery was able to train at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., near her hometown, Washington, D.C. Her mother, Gabrielle, had first brought her there at 5, eager to find an outlet for her daughter’s endless energy.
“When Robin started walking and talking and had a lot of energy at 3, 4, I just put her in everything from swim lessons to dancing to French,” Gabrielle Montgomery said.
Tennis proved enough of a physical and mental challenge to satisfy young Robin.
“I always felt tired after practice,” Montgomery said. “Feeling tired, honestly, made me feel good about myself.”
Coaches at the Junior Tennis Champions Center said Montgomery has never struggled to channel her energy productively.
“Robin is one of our hardest working and most dedicated players,” said Vesa Ponkka, the senior director of tennis. “She’s always there first thing in the morning and does her runs, and nobody needs to supervise her. She’s very self-motivated.”
Ponkka said he grasped Montgomery’s potential when watching her turn around a match against a seeded player at last year’s junior U.S. Open.
“Robin had no business winning that match,” Ponkka said. “She lost the first set 6-1 and that girl was outplaying her. And then Robin adjusted, problem-solved, started serve-and-volleying, and turned it around. Everybody was there — agents, U.S.T.A. high performance — there were a lot of people watching. That showed me that she could do it under pressure.”
Frances Tiafoe, who grew up playing at the same tennis center and also won the Orange Bowl at 15, called Montgomery his “little sister” and said he offers her advice whenever she asks.
“I’ve really taken her under my wing,” Tiafoe said. “She works super hard. She’s super professional. Lefty who hits the ball huge — she’s special.”
Tiafoe was in the fitness room when Montgomery was notified early this month that she had received a wild card into the U.S. Open main draw.
“I look at Frances and I’m like ‘I’m going to see you at the Open,’” Montgomery recalled, beaming. “He sprinted out of the fitness room, kicked the door, and he’s screaming. We were all just really excited.”
Another hurdle followed the good news, however: A player in Montgomery’s training group at the tennis center tested positive for the coronavirus, meaning Montgomery could not continue training at the center in the weeks before her Grand Slam debut. In the interim, a series of withdrawals by top women allowed the 593rd-ranked Montgomery to claim an unexpected spot in the qualifying draw of the Western & Southern Open, where she had her first match against a top-100 opponent, falling 6-1, 6-4 to Sorana Cirstea.
Ponkka said he believed the tour stoppage would make Montgomery’s lack of big stage experience less of an issue than it would be otherwise.
“Everybody’s in the same boat,” he said, adding: “She’s a very smart girl on and off the court, and I have confidence that she will be able to play well. How far that takes her, nobody knows, but she’s going to be playing some good tennis there.”
The youngest player in the draw already has a vote of confidence from the eldest: Venus Williams, 40, came away impressed by Montgomery after the two hit together this summer while Williams was in Washington.
“It feels like she’s got a bright future,” Williams said. “She looks like she’s got ease in the strokes and natural power coming along. All it takes is time and perseverance. There is no limit to what a person can achieve as long as they believe it. It’s all in the cards for her if she can make that happen.”