It’s here, somewhere. Kayla Day is sure of it.
The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center spans 46.5 acres of Queens, N.Y., a sprawling complex of courts and buildings and concession stands, and for two weeks every August and early September, hundreds of thousands of people.
But somewhere in this giant mass is a plaque that lists all of the past champions of the U.S. Open Girls’ Tournament. And on that plaque, next to the words “2016 champion,” it says “Kayla Day, United States.”
“I’ve been looking all over for it, and I’m so mad I can’t find it!” she said last week with a laugh, upon her return to these hallowed grounds for the first time in five years. “Someone told me it was over by the Chase Center building, but I couldn’t find it over there. I don’t know, it’s gotta be here somewhere.”
The plaque, and the period of time it symbolized, will always be special to the now 22-year-old Santa Barbaran. Six years ago, she rocketed to junior stardom with a dominating win at the tournament, capturing six matches, including a semifinal triumph over future U.S. Open women’s champ Bianca Andreescu, and dropping only one set.
Day was a 5’8” lefty with power and great touch at the net, with a bubbly personality off the court and a fierce killer instinct on it. At that same 2016 Open, she won a round in the women’s draw before falling to American star Madison Keys, who predicted big things for Day.
If anyone seemed destined to find immediate success on the WTA Tour, it was her.
But things didn’t happen anywhere near as planned. Day has struggled with injuries, a wheelbarrow full of them. Elbow, hip, foot — you name it, Day has hurt it. Those physical woes led to mental confidence issues, and a whole host of defeats on the pro tour from 2018-20 followed.
Her ranking plummeted, and she just couldn’t catch a break.
She fell off the proverbial tennis map, and joked that the best thing about the hit 2018 movie Eighth Grade naming its lead character Kayla Day was “I saw people finally Tweeting about me again.”
“I did think about quitting a little bit. I think every tennis player has at some point,” she said. “But I knew I was too young to leave, and I knew I would’ve regretted it if I did. I just had to find that love again.”
Day found it and is most certainly on her way back. This season, she’s been able to play a full slate of tournaments as a pro, healthy, and has been grinding her way through the minor league events of the WTA.
She’s gotten her ranking back up to No. 211, and in recognition of her efforts, the USTA gave Day a wild card into the U.S. Open Qualifying Tournament, the event a week before the big show where lower-ranked players try to get into the main draw.
Day won one match here but fell in a tight three-setter in the second contest, so she’ll have to wait at least another year before getting back in the big spotlight of the Open.
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Still, just being here again made her smile ear to ear.
“I was so excited to be back, and it feels so special and different to be here now,” Day said the day after her loss, sitting in a crowded outdoor terrace area on the grounds. “I thought about how special it would be to be back here, and then when I got here, it was just go, go, go, always something to go do or practice or play. So I made sure to take a moment and appreciate being back here again.”
Day said she’s very far from the person she was at 16; who among us isn’t different six years later? She has embraced the challenges of life on the tour, adding a new coach last year in veteran pro Cecil Mamiit but also loving traveling by herself most of the time. (Day said she will always talk to and get advice from Santa Barbara’s Larry Mousouris, who has coached her since she was a little kid.)
“It’s a flavor-of-the-month sport, tennis, and a lot of people have counted me out since they haven’t heard from me the last few years,” Day says with a smile. “But one of the things I’ve learned is the only person’s expectations I have to live up to are my own.”
Mamiit, who has worked with Maria Sharapova, among others, said he’s been very impressed with his new charge’s professionalism on and off the court.
“Her sense of organization, the way she conducts herself, and just her being open-minded about improving herself and her game has been terrific,” Mamiit said. “One thing we have done is utilized the opportunity that came about because of her struggles. She had a great platform [before] and now we’re building on it and looking forward.”
Looking back, Day said perhaps things came a little too easily to her, too fast, once she rose to junior stardom. All the advantages that came with being an American-born prospect, like wild cards into big tournaments, may have robbed her of the opportunity to learn the hard way.
“I didn’t go through the grind of earning everything, and I wasn’t as developed as a person or a player when I reached that level,” she said. “Of course at the time it was great getting into Indian Wells and events like that. But things did happen maybe a little too fast for me.”
During her injury-riddled seasons, Day also had to watch as contemporaries from her junior career, like Andreescu, Sonia Kenin, and close friend Claire Liu, had big successes on the tour. “Comparison is the thief of joy, right?” she said. “Of course it was tough sometimes, seeing them win, but now it’s inspiring, like ‘If she did it, why couldn’t I?’”
With her appearance and win in qualifying, Day’s ranking will be inside the Top 200 now, with Mamiit saying getting inside that mark will enable her to get into qualifying at other Slams.
It’s another step on the long road back.
“She’s found her identity and has that sense of clarity, very strongly now,” Mamiit said. “She’s growing as a tennis player and getting the kind of self-confidence you have to have.”
“One step at a time,” Day said. “The rise may be a little slower this time, and maybe slower than I like sometimes, but it’s 100 percent good.
“I’m very happy to be back.”