March 9, 2018
With an unprecedented level of Canadian talent on the international stage today, it’s easy for fans to focus on the present without giving much thought to a very talented next generation. With the likes of Denis Shapovalov and Bianca Andreescu leading a young crop of talent that seem to be getting better year after year, there is one tall, big-serving right-hander that is looking to make much more than just a lasting impression on the tennis world. Meet Carson Branstine.
At just 17 years of age, Branstine is one of a number of young players looking to make a name for herself. Her very impressive junior career saw her reach as high as number four in the world, winning a dozen titles all over the globe—including two Grand Slams with compatriot Bianca Andreescu. How was this young Canadian, who has seemingly played on the biggest stages that this sport has to offer, been able to fly under the radar for so long, until last spring when Tennis Canada suddenly announced her presence?
The answer is quite simple: Until last March, Branstine played with an American flag next to her name. Born and raised in Southern California to an American father and a Canadian mother, the 17-year-old, who holds dual citizenship, was approached by Tennis Canada in the fall of 2016 about the prospect of switching allegiances and training north of the border—a generous offer she quickly accepted for a very unique reason.
“You know, the U.S. has a big pool of players and not everyone gets the individual attention that they really need,” she explained in a sit-down interview last fall. “[Because of] my kind of game style, and just my personality, I need a lot of attention and people who believe in me. Tennis Canada has more of a family setting: It’s smaller and they believe in me more than anyone and made me feel the most comfortable with my tennis.”
Born into an athletic, baseball-loving family, tennis actually wasn’t Branstine’s first choice; like most of her family, it used to be all about the bat and the ball. “I hit my first tennis ball when I was like three, but I actually played baseball,” she recalled. “My cousin [Freddie Freeman] is a professional baseball player—he plays for the Atlanta Braves—so my whole family is a baseball family.
“The only people who play tennis are me and my sisters and they’re kind of my inspiration. And after a while of baseball, my mom kind of told me, ‘Uh, girls can’t really play baseball with the boys forever.’ So it’s like, alright, I love tennis too; so I got into it more when I was like seven and eight.”
It was only a couple years later that Branstine began to taste success at local tournaments in Southern California, at which point she made it her goal to one day compete on the professional circuit. “I was 10 or 11 when I started having a lot of success just at local tournaments,” she recalled. “I was winning a lot and I was like, ‘Wow, this is so much fun, like I want to do it forever.’”
A self-proclaimed “aggressive, all-court player” for as long as she can remember, the last 12 months have been quite the whirlwind for Branstine. After putting in countless hours of hard work in the offseason at the National Training Centre in Montréal, the Canadian teenager hit the ground running almost immediately in 2017, picking up three titles—two doubles and one singles—in her first two tournaments of the season, which included her first of two major junior titles with Andreescu.
“It was an incredible experience being able to share two Grand Slam titles with one of my best friends,” explained Branstine. “I will never forget those moments of excitement and happiness after the championship points. It showed me that I am able to do it [make it in the pros]. I got lots of confidence from winning the Aussie and Roland Garros. I know this is just the beginning and it can only get better from here.”
It would indeed only get better for the two a couple months after their success at the French as, in their first tour-level tournament as a team, Branstine and Andreescu played some incredible tennis under pressure to stun the experienced team of Kristina Mladenovic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on home soil at none other than the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank.
While this victory was equally significant for both young ladies, it was especially meaningful for Branstine, who finally got a taste of the incredible support Canadians always talk about whenever they get a chance to play on home soil.
“Not only was it special for me to play my first Rogers Cup as a Canadian, but also it made it even better that I did well,” she explained. “I got to show my skills to the Canadian tennis fans that aren’t familiar with my game and me. As always, I had an amazing time on and off the court with Bianca. It doesn’t get much better being a young player and getting a huge win in your home country.”
For two players who just started playing together at the start of the season, Branstine and Andreescu’s unexpected success has certainly been quite the pleasant surprise. But to what do these two young women attribute their long-lasting success in 2017, which saw them go 16-3 overall and by the end of the year reaching their first WTA final in Québec City?
As Branstine explains, “I think it might be our friendship, honestly because we have so much fun playing with each other, we’re so happy no matter what. Win or lose, we’re happy that we got to get out here and fight…and our game styles actually mix really well too, which is a plus”. But that certainly hasn’t been the only friendship she’s formed in her time north of the border.
While she did have to trade in her white sandy beaches for the bitter Canadian cold during the offseason, Branstine admits that the relaxed setting of the National Training Centre, compared to the hustle and bustle she experienced in her time with the USTA, has proven to be ideal for her growth not only as a player but also as a person.
“I think everyone [all the players] wants the best for each other no matter what; we all want each other to do well and we’re all working together, and I think that setting makes it more relaxed for everyone,” she noted. “We all motivate each other no matter the level we are playing. When we are training, we all cheer each other on, and I like to watch results on how they are doing.
“Since we all train at the same place, it gives me confidence in myself and in my training to accomplish my own goals and dreams.”
Being one of the best at what you do does have certain perks, but much like other student athletes, balancing the books with the ball can often be even more challenging than playing itself. While she does admit that her current situation is not ideal, Branstine herself dedicates a good third of her usual 10-hour training days at the National Training Centre towards her education, which is something she values just as much—if not even more—as her career, at this point in time.
“You can see how competitive I am on the court, like I want to win everything, and I’m the same with my school,” compared the 17-year-old, who is currently in her final year of high school. “I’ve never gotten a B in my life in my school and I try to stay on top of it, but it’s definitely not easy, like at nighttime when you’re training for like five or six hours and you have to go home and teach yourself how to do math. It’s not exactly the best situation, but we definitely manage—not everyone, but a lot of us do.”
Given that most people at her age are currently in the final stages of weighing their post-secondary options, Branstine is well-aware of the question that some people have been asking: If her education remains a top priority, why doesn’t she just complete it while playing college or university tennis where she can further develop her game?
The answer is rather plain and simple: At this stage of her professional development, now is just not the time. Like many of her peers, the Canadian teenager would like to maximize her potential before resorting to such a long-term commitment, which explains why it remains her backup plan for the time being.
For now, her attention lies solely in the present as she looks to kick her season into high gear after a recurring right knee injury forced her to prematurely shut down her season after that run in Québec City. Looking back at what was, without question, the greatest year of her career to date, Branstine—always the perfectionist—was quick to point out that there were times where she felt she could have done better overall but was just as quick to note how she even surprised herself with some of her accomplishments, which will definitely serve as a driving source of motivation in her quest to make a full transition to the pro circuit in 2018.
“I haven’t participated [in] many pro events but going forward I know I’m ready to compete at the professional level, whether it’s a challenger or a WTA [event],” said the 17-year-old. “I try not to look back on too many things because the present and future is the most important. I reflect on my experiences from the season to figure out what I need to work on and my upcoming schedule.”
Through speaking to Branstine, even for a little bit, one can be really taken aback by not only her physical presence but also by the way she speaks. At 17 years of age, she is one of the most grounded, poised and positive young ladies you will ever meet, who exudes a maturity beyond her years. But what does she attribute to this striking and very impressive attitude?
“I definitely think that having faith in the Lord and not letting the bad things get to me has helped with my career so far,” she explained. “I am well-aware of how many girls want the same thing as me, and I know that I have lots of work to do on and off the court. I try to remember that tennis is a privilege and that there are lots of people that wish they could have what I have. There is no reason to be cocky or negative. I have no complaints in my lifestyle. I just need to live day-by-day and one match at a time.”
While Branstine wants to one day be considered one of the best in the world just like any other player, she has a unique, and rather refreshing, ultimate goal—something that is bigger than just herself. “I want to make tennis even more popular in Canada and in the rest of the world,” she said excitedly.
“I want up-and-coming players to admire me for my game and my personality. I want to be remembered as a great champion on and off the court.”
If Branstine can stay healthy while continuing to develop all the moving parts of her powerful game, which she knows has the capabilities of doing some real damage one day, there really is no telling how far she can go in her quest to not only become the best at what she does, but also inspire a whole new generation of players—the true definition of what it means to be a real champion.