As more and more players withdrew from the United States Open because of travel and safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic, a spot finally opened for a player who picked up the sport accidentally and hasn’t let go since.
Katrina Scott, 16, was given a wild card 18 days after the initial list of wild cards was announced, and her next match is Thursday against a fellow American teenager, the 22nd-seeded Amanda Anisimova, 19.
Scott showed a readiness to compete in her first-round match on Tuesday that belied the hasty summoning. Ranked 637th in women’s singles, Scott beat the 131st-ranked Natalia Vikhlyantseva of Russia, 7-6 (3), 6-2.
Katrina’s mother, Lena Scott, had grown up as a ballet dancer in Iran before emigrating to the United States at age 17 with her mother, who was seeking breast cancer treatment.
Lena Scott had initially started her daughter in ballet lessons at just 18 months old. When Katrina didn’t take to ballet, she instead put her into figure skating, which she figured was close enough to ballet, at age 3.
Katrina took to figure skating quickly, training up to three hours a day toward the goal of one day competing professionally. But when Lena couldn’t pick her up from practice one day, Katrina’s alternate ride took her life in a new direction: the friend whom she car-pooled with first had to go to a tennis lesson. When Scott got on the court, her ambitions suddenly changed.
“Once I want something I work as hard as I can to get it, and do anything possible to get it,” Scott said in an interview. “Anything in life, I’m super competitive in all aspects of life. Even off the court, I always want to win.”
Her father, David Scott, said that the family began to take Katrina’s tennis more seriously when she started doing well in 14-and-under competitions.
“She’s having a good time with it, she’s having fun, and it became more serious as it became part of her identity, that she’s really good at this and it can really take her some place,” David Scott said. “And it worked out. She kept going, she stayed motivated, and she became more serious about it and more conscious of her time on the court and how she used it.”
Katrina Scott’s goals were validated last summer in San Jose, Calif., when she played a competitive first round qualifying match against Timea Babos, who is currently ranked 101st, and was quickly embraced by the crowd.
“All the fans were cheering as loud as they could and I had them behind my back,” she said. “It was this feeling, this adrenaline rush. I was like: this is really for me.”
Months later, her road took an unexpected geographic detour. Scott’s parents had met as students at Santa Monica College and then Cal State-Northridge in Los Angeles, where they would later raise their daughter, who is bilingual in English and Farsi. But she relocated to Columbus, Ohio, to train with coach David Kass at the Kass Tennis Academy.
Kass encouraged the family to pull her out of competitions for six months to redevelop her game, a plan that stretched into nine months because of the pandemic. Kass and Scott used the time to rebuild her mind-set on the court and her forehand.
“She’d been more of a defensive player throughout juniors, and in our opinion that needed to change in order to have a lot of success on the pro tour,” Kass said. “That’s a major change, in terms of attacking the ball and your court positioning.”
“Her forehand started over with a totally different swing,” he added. “Learning a new swing is not the hardest thing to do over time, but unlearning a swing you’ve been doing for years is extremely hard.”
More than those tactical and technical changes, Kass was most impressed by Scott’s mentality in her first-round win, triumphing despite having “plenty of anxiety” in the match.
“I’m really proud of her for fighting through it,” Kass said. “She definitely played with a good amount of nerves, which is understandable, but she was able to find a way, not playing her best tennis or even close to it. But she’s a great competitor.”
“When one of your peers from junior breaks through, I think it’s been shown that others start pushing and believing, too,” Kass said. “You start seeing them in bunches.”
Like Gauff and several other young players, Scott has used this summer to highlight civil rights causes near to her, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt onto the court for her match and into her news conference.
Scott, whose paternal grandmother is African-American, was proud of other players, including Naomi Osaka, for also choosing to use their platforms to highlight social issues.
“I think it’s great that we’re really putting this out there and making it known and letting people know that we’re not too young,” Scott said. “We are young, but we’re going to do the best for our cause and support it 100 percent, and do what we can to make a difference.”
For Lena Scott, who accompanied her daughter to New York while her father watched from their home in Los Angeles, the moment of victory at the Open gave meaning to her daughter’s sacrifices.
“All her hard work is paying off — it’s worth it,” Lena Scott said. “Seeing her happy, enjoying being out there, that makes me happy, whether she won or lost.”