As the son of a famous tennis champion, Brandon Holt is often asked what he has taken from his mother, Tracy Austin, who won the United States Open twice. Did he inherit his service return from her? Did she bequeath her court savvy to her son?
Some of his tennis skill set does derive from his mother, and some of it is his own. But what did Holt get from his father, Scott Holt?
“His musical taste,” Brandon Holt said, and for the rising tennis star, that is something very precious.
Ever since Holt, 24, rolled his ankle in his sophomore year at the University of Southern California and was forced to spend significant time away from tennis, he has become an avid guitar player, borrowing from his dad’s record collection to strum along with the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Oasis, Pink Floyd and more.
The guitar was something he picked up to get away from the mind-numbing magnetism of social media during his rehabilitation. He bought a guitar and learned chords and songs from the internet.
“Every time I felt the urge to go on Instagram or something, I would pick up the guitar,” he said. “And I fell in love with it. Now it goes wherever I go.”
Holt was too exhausted after his record-breaking upset win over the No. 10 seed, Taylor Fritz, on Monday to play later that night. In his hotel room on Tuesday morning, he grabbed his instrument and started jamming, just like any other day on tour, as long as the doctors allow it.
Several months ago, Holt was recovering from a hand injury that temporarily jeopardized his career. He found he could strum the guitar, but picking the strings hurt his hand. He asked his surgeon if he could still pick through the pain.
“He said, ‘That depends,’” Holt recalled. “‘Do you want to be a professional tennis player or a professional musician?’”
The answer to that question is affirmatively the former. Holt is having the tournament of his life, piling career-best win on top of career-best win to reach the second round of the U.S. Open. If he can beat Pedro Cachin of Argentina, who is ranked No. 66 in the world, on Wednesday, Holt would become the first man with a wild-card entry into the qualifying rounds of the U.S. Open to reach the third round of the main draw.
In other words, the U.S. Open gifted him the opportunity to compete in the pretournament qualifying rounds, which meant that he would then have to win three matches just to get into the main draw. He did that for the first time in his young career and then stunned Fritz in four sets.
He is the first wild-card qualifier to beat a top-10 seed, men or women, and the second man to win a match in the main draw. He did it by beating Fritz, an old friend — they have played against one another in Southern California since before they were 10 — who had designs on winning the U.S. Open.
Fritz is also 24, but he has been playing in major tournaments for seven years. Quicker to develop professionally, Fritz was always helpful to Holt as they played against one another in their youths and trained together over the years. Fritz acted almost as a mentor while Holt bided his time. When they were young, Fritz invariably won their matches, but there was nothing weird about the tables turning as they did on Monday.
“No, that’s not the right word,” Holt said. “I felt really happy, maybe just, I don’t know, stress relief. Sometimes, you want something so bad, and you want it to end so that it comes true, and when it happens, it just feels so good.”
Holt’s gradual development has allowed him to surface into the thick of the U.S. Open eight years older than his mother was when she first won the U.S. Open as a 16-year-old phenom, seeded third, in 1979. Holt, who came into the qualifying rounds ranked No. 303, went to regular schools, avoided the grind of international travel as a teenager and spent four years in college with strong (free) coaching, top nutrition and training facilities (also free).
“He really liked being a normal kid,” said David Nainkin, the lead men’s national coach for United States Tennis Association player development. “He’s got a strong family background, and he’s just taken his time and gotten a little better and a little better over time.”
Austin remains a part of her son’s coaching staff and occasionally makes critical suggestions, Nainkin said, like a recent footwork adjustment that added 10 miles per hour to his serve. Nainkin added that Holt, always a smart player, has also taken a quantum leap in self-analysis of his game during his time at the U.S. Open.
“He’s improved in just the nine days that he has been here,” Nainkin said.
Also, he is devouring newfound information about his opponents, statistics he had never had access to before. The U.S. Open is the first tournament Holt has played in which in-depth technical data is available on all players — from groundstroke speed to first-serve tendencies.
Nainkin also believes that Holt’s pathway to the professional ranks has been enhanced by his maturity and independence. Before he was granted the wild card into qualifying, Holt traveled the world by himself — no parent, no coach, no manager — playing in Tunisia, Mexico, Ecuador, Britain and the Dominican Republic and ranked as low as No. 924.
His only traveling partner was his guitar, a 2.5-pound semi-acoustic that he plugs into his computer and listens through headphones. Holt packs the guitar into his luggage and sets it in the corner of his hotel room and plays it every day, sometimes for two hours at a time, before he catches himself, lest he develop hand cramps while playing barre chords.
Although he was drawn to his father’s musical tastes, neither of his parents plays an instrument, he said. His grandmother on his father’s side is an accomplished pianist, and sometimes they play together. Holt’s favorite song to play is one that could apply to all his friends and family members who could not make the journey to New York to witness his breakout tournament.
“‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd,” he said. “If there is only one song I could play for the rest of my life, it would be that one.”
Luckily, there are no such restrictions. Holt is showing he can play a lot more than just that.