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Robin Montgomery out to make the most of US Open wild card

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Robin Montgomery was hanging out after practice one day in early August at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, when she got the text. It was only a few words, but they changed her life in an instant:

“You got the wild card.”

The 15-year-old was in disbelief but managed to read it to all those around — including Frances Tiafoe, the ATP champion and 2019 Australian Open quarterfinalist — many whom she had known and had been training with for most of her life. Everyone immediately shared in her excitement.

“We all went crazy,” Montgomery said recently. “I think I was almost in tears of joy because I just didn’t see it happening. It was very surreal.”

Tiafoe, 22, said he, too, could hardly believe what he was hearing. So much so, he asked her to read the news to him multiple times. When the shock wore off, he started the celebration.

“I ran around the whole club, and told every single coach and everyone there,” Tiafoe said. “It was so funny, I honestly felt like I got the wild card. I think of her as my little sister — we talk all the time and we’re super close. Her success definitely makes me so happy.”

While Montgomery has been dreaming of competing in the US Open since she started playing as a 6-year-old, she admittedly didn’t expect to be in the main draw at this point in her young career. But with the tournament eliminating the qualifying rounds this year and having a number of players withdraw, the 128-player field is perhaps more open than ever before. Alongside the likes of Kim Clijsters, the four-time major champion coming out of retirement, and former American teen phenom CiCi Bellis, Montgomery was granted one of the eight wild cards and is the youngest player in this year’s event.

Ranked No. 597 in the world, Montgomery wasn’t the most obvious pick to receive the honor, but she had been on a rapidly upward trajectory prior to the coronavirus pandemic shutting down professional tennis — and just about every other sport — in March. She knew there had been a slight chance the United States Tennis Association would include a young player in its selection, but she didn’t want to get her hopes up, so she just kept training and tried her best to ignore the chatter.

And it’s clear it still hasn’t fully sunk in.

“I mean, I’m still feeling a bit overwhelmed,” she said. “But I’m really excited. I’ve wanted this since I was a little kid, and now here I am.”

Montgomery was starting to make something of a name for herself among tennis insiders before the season was suspended. She helped lead the U.S. junior Fed Cup team to a title last September, and then won the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament title, joining the likes of previous winners Sofia Kenin, Bianca Andreescu and Coco Gauff, in December. She made a run to the quarterfinals in the Australian Open juniors draw the following month. And in March, she won her first professional title at an ITF event in Las Vegas. She’s still somewhat shocked by her success.

“When I look back [at all the victories], I’m still pretty speechless,” Montgomery said. “The moments when I won happened so fast. But I’m hopeful those are small milestones in my career, or maybe stepping stones, and I’m excited to make them grow into bigger moments and titles.”

Still, to many she’s a relative unknown, and her wild-card inclusion drew some surprise from casual fans. If they wanted to look her up on Wikipedia, they were out of luck. She doesn’t even have an entry there yet. But that anonymity likely won’t last for long.

Montgomery officially announced she was turning professional, and thus foregoing her NCAA eligibility, earlier this month, and signed with talent agency IMG. She, and all those around her, hope she is the next teenager to have a Cinderella run at a major — much like Gauff, her longtime friend who made it to the third round at last year’s US Open as well as fourth-round showings at Wimbledon in 2019 and the Australian Open earlier this year, and became a fan favorite along the way.

Montgomery, like so many others, has been inspired by Gauff’s meteoric rise.

“Hopefully, I’m next,” she said. “I hope I’m the next [rising teenager] and being able to see Coco do what she’s done has been amazing. I’m friends with her and I’ve always told her that what she’s doing is just absolutely phenomenal. And knowing that now I have a chance to join her is even better.”

It seems Gauff agrees. A frequent commenter on Montgomery’s Instagram page, the 16-year-old wrote, “Big things coming soon for you b” earlier this year after their time in Melbourne.

Montgomery started her time in Queens with a loss in qualifying to Sorana Cirstea, 6-1, 6-4, during the Western & Southern Open, but she will not let that deter her. She turns 16 on Sept. 5, during the US Open third round, and would like to celebrate her birthday in New York, if possible.

She knows that will be a challenge, but she said she feels ready. Montgomery will face No. 23 seed Yulia Putintseva in the first round on Monday. Tiafoe said he hopes to be there cheering her on and believes the lack of fans actually might benefit her.

“I think it could be a bonus for her because we’re not really feeling the pressure right now the same way,” he said. “I remember the first year I played here [as a 17-year-old in 2015] and I was playing Viktor Troicki, the No. 22 seed, on Court 11 and it was super packed. It was a great experience, but you feel that nervous energy, and it’s difficult. But I think now, with no one there, she won’t even feel like she’s playing the Open, so I think that will help her and keep her calm.”

Montgomery counts Venus and Serena Williams among her heroes and can’t believe she is playing in a Grand Slam with them. While she wouldn’t face either of them until the final, she considers the legendary sisters, who won a combined 10 major singles titles before Montgomery was born in 2004, as role models on and off the court.

She even had the chance to practice with Venus recently, and she left an impression on the elder Williams’ sister.

“It feels like she’s got a bright future,” Venus said during a news conference at the recent Top Seed Open in Kentucky. “She’s got the strokes, the natural power. All it takes is just time and perseverance. It’s all in the cards for her.”

But while it seems Montgomery is destined for big things on the tennis tour, she is trying not to get too far ahead of herself, and is taking it one match at a time, trying to enjoy every moment. Not to mention, she has her schoolwork to keep her grounded. Her junior year of high school, through an online program, is scheduled to begin Monday — the first day of play at the US Open. She said her mom emailed her teachers to let them know she probably wouldn’t be logging on that day, but would do her best to get her work done throughout the tournament.

“If you were to tell me two years ago I would be playing now in the main draw at the US Open, I would have said, ‘Ha, you’re funny,'” Montgomery said. “It’s definitely different than I imagined with these conditions, but honestly, I couldn’t ever have imagined myself playing in the US Open this year under any conditions. Honestly, I’m just really honored to be participating and having the chance to compete against the top players now.

“I know that I just turned pro, and the US Open is a huge way to start out anyone’s career, so I’m just trying to get the feel for everything and get the experience in. I know I can’t expect the results to come in right away because everyone’s path is different. So I just plan on going out every match and competing like it’s my last match and showing a lot of pride and perseverance. And hopefully make a name for myself as I go.”

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