Seven things to know about Kayla Day

Former junior Slam champ reaches third round after six-year absence from main-draw play at the majors

Kayla Day - UK
 - Reem Abulleil

Competing in her first Grand Slam main draw since US Open 2017, Californian qualifier Kayla Day posted a maiden top-20 victory by ousting No.20 seed Madison Keys in three sets on Thursday.

The 23-year-old American is through to the third round at a major for the first time in her career and next takes on Anna Karolina Schmiedlova on Saturday.

Here’s what you need to know about the 138th-ranked lefty.

She’s half Czech

Day was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California but is also half Czech. In a lengthy press conference in Paris on Thursday, she joked that she gets her tennis prowess from her mother's roots.

“I'm actually a citizen of the Czech Republic. I have a Czech passport, which is very helpful when I come to Europe. And yes, my mom, she was born and raised in Prague, and I speak fluent Czech. That's the only reason why I'm good at tennis, because I'm half Czech,” laughed Day.

Nadal was her idol growing up

“There have been a couple of good Czech lefties. Do you try to play like any lefty I can think of?” tennis and broadcast legend Mary Carillo asked.

“I wish," Day responded.

Pressed to talk about any players she tried to emulate as a child, Day said: “Growing up I loved Nadal. That was like who I looked up to, and obviously Martina Navratilova, Czech lefty.”

Kayla Day, Roland-Garros 2023, second round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

What about Czech lefty Petra Kvitova?

“I remember a really long time ago I told my coach at that time, ‘Oh, I like Kvitova’. I think he asked the question, like, ‘Who are you most similar to?’ I said, ‘Kvitova’. He said, ‘What are you talking about? You play nothing the same. Get that out of your mind’.

“Yeah, I wish, she's obviously a Grand Slam champion, incredible player, but yeah, I'm not super similar to Kvitova in the way we play.”

Rafa and Garbine are alive and well

Those are Day’s dogs, not the tennis players. Day has a dog named ‘Rafa’ after the 22-time Grand Slam champion, and her mother named their other dog ‘Garbine’, after two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza.

“Yeah, we only name them after Spanish tennis players,” she says with a chuckle.

Have there been any new additions to the household since? The answer is yes, but they’re called Calvin and Jasper. No more Spanish major champions in the mix.

She was a top junior

Day won the US Open girls’ singles title in 2016 and was the world No.1 junior. Seven months later, as a 17-year-old, she enjoyed a surprise run to the Indian Wells third round, where she knocked out No.32 seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni before falling to Muguruza in three sets.

Day was the youngest player in the top 200 at the time and was a highly-touted teenager.

Injuries and illness halted her progress

Day made her Grand Slam women’s main draw debut back in 2016. Ranked No.374 in the world, she defeated top-50 player Madison Brengle before falling to Madison Keys in the second round.

She competed in two more majors in 2017 – in Melbourne and New York – and had not made it to a Grand Slam main draw since, prior to her run in Paris this fortnight. This six-year absence from the major stage was due to a string of physical setbacks for Day, who shared some of the struggles she had to face.

“I had a ton of injuries, and I also had mono, which made me feel not so well for a very long time,” she explained.

“I tore my quad. I fractured my foot. I tore both labrums in my hip. So it was just a lot of bad luck, one thing after another.”

By the time she felt healthy, the pandemic had struck and the tours were suspended. Day didn’t have a protected ranking and found it difficult entering tournaments when the tennis circuit resumed.

She has been grinding primarily on the ITF circuit for the past couple of years and has clawed her way back up the rankings from the 500s to land near the edge of the top 100, thanks to her Roland-Garros exploits.

“I found my way back,” she said with a smile.

Kayla Day, Roland-Garros 2023, second round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Pat Cash helped up her clay game

Day has tallied up an impressive 18-6 record on clay this season – across all levels, including qualifying – and credits Australian former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash for her progress on the surface.

“Pat Cash, who's here with me, he's just completely changed my idea on movement and the way I move. We did a lot of work before the clay season started together,” she said.

“So he's made probably the biggest difference in my movement, especially on my backhand side. Before I couldn't even really hit an open-stance backhand, so he helped me through that.”

Kayla Day, Madison Keys, Roland-Garros 2023, second round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

She’s happy to prove her doubters wrong

Day says she has deeper appreciation for what she’s achieving at the moment, compared to her earlier breakthrough as a teen, given everything she has had to overcome to get here.

“I've definitely learned that I'm a lot tougher than I thought I was, to just grind my way back like I have,” she said.

“That's something I'll carry with me through the rest of my career because a lot of people, I think, counted me out or didn't believe in me anymore or whatever, and I just worked super hard and trusted myself. And, yeah, now I'm back here.”

Kayla Day, Roland-Garros 2023, second round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT