Former Jewish phenom Brodsky back in the swing of things

“I did have the bug to start playing little by little,” reports Brodsky, “And I felt I still had the goods!”

 After taking six years off of the professional tour, Jewish-American tennis player Gail Brodsky, 27, mounted a comeback this year at the US Open, where she first  competed as a 17-year-old in 2008 (photo credit: HOWARD BLAS)
After taking six years off of the professional tour, Jewish-American tennis player Gail Brodsky, 27, mounted a comeback this year at the US Open, where she first competed as a 17-year-old in 2008
(photo credit: HOWARD BLAS)
 NEW YORK – To the casual observer of the 2018 US Open, Gail Brodsky is just another one of the 112 players in the 128 player qualifying draw who failed to secure a spot in the main draw. While wild card Brodsky easily defeated Irina Bara of Romania in straight sets, 7-5, 6-4 in the first round, she was summarily dismissed by Kathinka von Deichmann of Liechtenstein, 6-2, 6-4 in just over an hour and promptly returned home to her family in Seattle, Washington.
Tennis aficionados may remember Brodsky’s name from the US Open a decade ago, when the (at the time) New York resident competed in the women’s singles main draw as a 17-year-old wild card. She earned her spot in the main draw at the time by winning the 2008 USTA Girls’ 18s national title, defeating both Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion and CoCo Vandeweghe, the 2017 US Open semifinalist.
Stephens, who has already advanced to the quarterfinals of this year’s US Open after defeating Elise Mertens of Belgium in straight sets 6-3, 6-3, is a key reason Brodsky fought her way back to competitive tennis after a 10-year hiatus.
Last September, a light bulb went off for the now 27 year old.
“When I saw Sloane win the US Open and I saw the success of the peers I had growing up, I thought to myself, ‘Do I want to look back in 10, 15, 20 years and think, maybe this is something I could have done and have regrets? If I fail, at least I tried.”
But Brodsky’s life had changed a lot in 10 years. She now has a husband, two children under three years old, and she has gained nearly 60 pounds.
In contrast to high-profile tennis playing mother, Serena Williams, who recently took a 13-month maternity leave to take care of her daughter, Alexis Olympian Ohanaian, Brodsky went on an indefinite tennis leave to take care of herself.
Brodsky, an only child, was born Jewish, in the Ukraine, and moved to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, at the age of two. Her parents, who were not tennis players themselves, recognized her ability and potential at an early age and pushed her to become a professional tennis player. They reportedly controlled her practice schedule as well as her food intake and other aspects of her life.
By the age of six, Brodsky was splitting her time between New York and a tennis academy in California. After five punishing years traveling the world on the pro tour, and a lifetime of coping with difficult parents with whom she has reportedly had no contact since age 17, Brodsky realized she would rather be doing anything but playing tennis. She called it quits. She was ready for a change.
At age 21, Brodsky moved to Washington State – about as far as a person can get from New York City while still being in the United States – for a steady job as a tennis instructor. She eventually married Mark Hanson, a fellow teaching pro at the Eastside Tennis Center in Kirkland, Washington.
Now, Brodsky and Hanson have two children – Grayson (3) and Brooklyn (2) – and enjoy the support of Mark’s older two children, including a 16-year-old daughter who lives with them.
But Brodsky couldn’t stop thinking about that Sloan Stephens’s US Open final last September.
“I did have the bug to start playing little by little,” reports Brodsky, “And I felt I still had the goods!”
She first needed to get back in to playing shape. Her weight had reached 200 pounds and she would get of breath quickly when she exerted herself.
Brodsky worked with a former University of Washington football player who coached her through a rigorous six-day-a-week gym routine. She began spending up to 40 hours on the tennis court each week.
“My movement was getting better and the shots were still there. Returning to professional tennis crossed my mind a few times.”
She spoke with her husband but still couldn’t picture how they could work out the logistics.
“I didn’t want to miss out on kids growing up, and have them feel I was abandoning them.”
Hanson is an incredible coach and partner.
“He told me, ‘If you want it, you need to stop looking for reasons why it won’t work and make it happen,” said Brodsky.
He offered reassurances, and ultimately left the decision to Gail.
“I have it under control. You need to make the decision if it is something you want,” he said.
Brodsky decided to go for it. She got down to an impressively fit 140 pounds, started back in the tour in March, and earned a wild card to the US Open by winning a tournament in Kentucky –and a $60,000 in prize money – in July.
Brodsky and Hanson are an impressive team on and off the court. During the US Open qualifying tournament, when coaches are allowed to offer sideline coaching, Hanson patiently offered encouragement and technical expertise: “Bring your target in…use your feet…that’s how you got here, that’s the fight…you have to enjoy this…nice work…”
Brodsky won her first-round match and was still making sense of it all.
“It was incredible, almost surreal. I am still coming to terms that it actually happened.  I turned to Mark and said, ‘This feels so normal and shouldn’t.’ It didn’t hit me that I was at the US Open, though I am very familiar with the site. I have been coming since I was six – the USTA National Tennis Center was my training ground.”
Despite Brodsky’s loss in the second round of qualifiers, she is determined to continue this new phase of her playing career. Even if it is not always easy.
“We are hoping to travel to more tournaments together, though I hate missing out on being with the kids. Mark is busy when he is at home too – young kids and players rely on him. We have a lot of help – nannies, our older daughter and Mark’s mom are a huge help in watching the kids. It has been a team effort from all in the family.  It takes everyone to make it work. Knowing I have this support system is the biggest help!”
Hanson acknowledges that it is not always easy.
“The biggest challenge has been not being able to travel together full time because of the responsibilities back at home, our family, our academy and our cryotherapy business.”
But he acknowledges proudly, “The rewards of coaching my wife is the partnership we have developed in working towards a common goal and how our collaboration has been successful in many aspects of our lives.”
Brodsky offers a useful perspective on how tennis is different this second time around.
“For a long time, tennis was my sole focus of my life and what my life revolved around.  Now, it is my family and my job – taking care of my kids at home and the kids in our program. Professional tennis has become like a hobby and has been an amazing thing for my tennis. Growing up, I felt an immense amount of pressure. Now, there is no pressure surrounding it – it is just something I do to enjoy myself.”
While Brodsky is Jewish and Hanson is not, both have had many points of contact with Israel tennis and with Israelis, and they have found ways to include Judaism in the life of their growing family.
“Jews in general are very proud of the fact that we are Jewish,” reports Brodsky. “It gives us a sense of community and family. To me, that has been the most important thing.”
While Brodsky did not grow up in a traditional Jewish household and has never been to Israel, she is proud of her Judaism.
“We do the basics. We light the menorah – that’s about it. I wasn’t taught very much about the culture and customs of Judaism – I hope to learn later on in life.”
Brodsky is also proud of her relationships with Israeli tennis players she has met over the years.
“I have been able to connect with Israelis on tour and they accept me to their little team, as part of their tennis world, just because of me being Jewish.”
She has been friends with Julia Glushko since the age of 12.
“The first time we met, we were playing together in the France 14-and-under Les Petite As tournament. I was friends with other Israelis too – Fahoum Fahoum and Nadine Fahoum. I was always close with the Israelis as we grew up.”
Brodsky reflects fondly on playing in a tournament in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2009.
“Amir Haddad and I became friends there. He knows all the Jewish and Israeli players – Tal Eros, Ram Tepper, Amir Weintraub – and Amir said, ‘If you need anything, just ask. He came up to me.  In Lagos, they all called me Gali Brodsky! And they adopted me. They said, ‘Come over here. We have an extra room put up by the Israel federation. You need to come and stay with us!’
Hanson has also had a strong connection with Israel tennis over the years.
“I worked with Amir Hadad [one of Glushko’s current coaches], and he worked for me at Tacoma Lawn Tennis Club. While there he had Keren Shlomo [Glushko’s other coach] and Tal Eros training with him.”
Shlomo is proud of her longtime friend.
“Gail is an amazing girl. And I am very happy to see her back on the courts. After two kids, I think she is a very good player and will make it big time. I am proud of her and so happy for her as well.”
Hadad is also proud.
“Mark is a great friend and a great coach. I’m very happy for his success and for a great comeback for Gail.”
Brodsky reports that she had been trying to figure out how to go on a Birthright Trip when she was younger, but she got married and it didn’t work it.
“I hope to enjoy the culture and see what it is all about.”