Tracy Austin put her hands to her head, then buried her face in them and, finally, raised two fists to the sky with a triumphant smile. It was not quite as exuberant as her celebration when she won the U.S. Open for the first time in 1979. But it was pretty close.
Her son Brandon Holt had just won his third qualifying match by beating Dimitar Kuzmanov, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, in a rain-delayed match that required nearly six hours to complete and tested Holt’s mental focus. The win, in his first qualifying event for a Grand Slam tournament, ensured Holt a place in the main draw of the same tournament his mother won twice.
After winning the match, Holt, 24, shook hands with his opponent, then went over to the bleachers on Court 11 and gave his mother a hug and a kiss.
“They say the toughest match is the last round of qualifying for a major,” Austin said. “I’m just so proud of him to keep his composure through all of that.”
By “all of that,” Austin meant the two rain delays the players endured in the third set, the first coming with Holt leading, 4-2. Over an hour later, they were back on court but only for a few minutes. Holt had match point on his serve, when rain fell again, prompting groans from fans who had gathered to watch the conclusion of a terrific match in steamy conditions.
Holt was only one point away from winning, but he and Kuzmanov had to go back indoors for more than an hour again. Holt held an advantage, receiving texts of encouragement and advice from a former world No. 1 player.
Ranked No. 296 in the world himself, and on the verge of the biggest win of his life, Holt was so relaxed that he fell asleep during the second delay, worrying for a moment that if he did not wake up, he could be defaulted. He made it back in time and required only two minutes to close out the match, as several hundred fans cheered while Holt hugged his mother and then his father, Scott Holt, long after the match had begun.
Holt will soon learn who his next opponent will be in the main draw, in which even a first-round loser will earn $80,000 — more than Holt has made all year, so far.
“It’s so much different watching him play than playing myself,” Austin said. “I’m just so nervous, now. I’m frazzled. Six hours. That’s a long time to be nervous.”
Austin, who won the U.S. Open in 1979 and 1981 by beating the legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (and raising her arms over her head in celebration as she skipped to the net to shake hands), is not Holt’s primary coach. She is a hitting partner at times, as well as a manager, a tactical consultant and a devoted fan. She will advise her son on his schedule and consult with his coach on training times, methods and strategies, and she often feeds balls to Holt on court.
“All the time,” Holt said. “During the pandemic, we hit every day. She still warms me up. She won’t miss one ball I hit back. Literally, not one. And if she does, she gets so mad.”
But Austin stressed that Holt came to tennis on his own, discovering a love for the game and the competition just as she did. It was mostly his thing, she said, and though she was supportive, she left it largely to him and his coaches, especially when he was a teenager. More recently, Holt, who played at the University of Southern California, has matured enough to take more of Austin’s sage advice and coaching.
“I’m not super great at listening to my mom,” he said. “She’ll tell you that, too. But I’ve gotten a lot better at it.”
Adding to the overall joy of the day was a heavy dose of relief. There was a time, only a few months ago, when Holt worried that he might never play competitively again, after a serious hand injury last year threw his career into jeopardy. In April 2021, he began experiencing severe pain in the back of his right hand. It would not dissipate, and doctors were confounded as to its source.
“I had every scan known to medical science,” Holt said. “But no one could figure out what it was.”
With no other explanation, doctors determined that they needed to rule out more potentially serious issues. They eventually discovered a benign tumor nestled among his tendons and bones. Dr. Steven Shin, a hand specialist who has worked with Stephen Curry and Drew Brees, delicately removed the tumor after researching the rare procedure, Austin said. But if anything had gone wrong, especially with the bone, it could have been catastrophic in terms of tennis.
“My career was in this doctor’s hands,” Holt said. “I was very worried. I couldn’t even run 10 yards without feeling my pulse pounding in my hand. But the surgery went really well, and I haven’t felt one bit of pain since.”
Holt was not allowed to pick up a racket for about five months, and then he used a half-size racket to hit foam balls with his mother only 10 times a day, which gradually increased until he made his return to competitive tennis in January, ranked No. 924.
In just eight months, he has moved up more than 600 spots, playing mostly on the better stops of the challenger circuit. He showed enough promise that he was granted a wild card into the qualifying tournament of the U.S. Open, where he won all three matches in the maximum three sets.
“I don’t feel like I’m playing to my full potential,” he said. “This is my first year. I haven’t had a lot of opportunities yet, but I feel like my level is high enough to play with a lot of these guys. Hopefully this is just the beginning.”