This story appears in the August issue of Sports Illustrated Kids.
Before she steps to the baseline to take her first serve of a match, Michigan tennis player Brienne Minor reaches into her bag, pulls out a four-inch figurine, and sets it on her bench. Even from several yards away, it's hard to tell what it is, but no one who knows Minor is surprised to see Iron Man, the superhero, take his usual place.
"That started the beginning of freshman year," she says. A friend who knew how much she loved the movie Iron Man suggested it. "In general, I'm a very superstitious person," Minor continues. "I've never not taken it out for a college match."
The sophomore repeated the ritual in May before facing sixth-seeded Belinda Woolcock of Florida in the 2017 NCAA singles championship match in Athens, Georgia. It was Minor's sixth match in six days, and all week she had fought off cramps in the Georgia heat by drinking pickle juice and Pedialyte, taking daily ice baths, and getting as many massages as she could. Minor, who was unseeded, won the first set against Woolcock 6--3. Then she took the second set 6--3 to win the national title.
"I was kind of on cloud nine," recalls Minor. "I couldn't really believe what was happening, which is why I think I was so composed. I was like, This isn't real, this isn't happening."
Not only did Minor claim the first women's singles title for Michigan, but also she became the first African-American woman to win an NCAA singles championship. "She's so humble," says Michigan coach Ronni Bernstein. "This is a kid who works so hard.... It was a proud moment."
Growing up as the baby of the family, four years younger than sister Jasmine and nine years younger than sister Kristina, Brienne had a lot of downtime in the way back of her family's Suburban to watch superhero movies (Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, you name it), and Disney flicks. ("I've watched all of them a million times," she says.) She would accompany her tennis-playing sisters and her parents, Michelle and Kevin, to tournaments around the country. The family would drive from their home in Mundelein, Illinois, outside Chicago, to competitions as far away as Florida, Arizona, and California. Brienne had her "territory," as her dad put it, in the back of the Suburban.
"We'd show up in Arizona, someplace that was thousands of miles away, and she'd step out at the site, and there would be all of these younger siblings for all the tennis players, and she'd know them all," recalls Kevin. "She had a network across the country at five that was pretty impressive. She has maintained a lot of those friendships through the years."
Any place there was a wall or a tennis backboard, Brienne would find a ball and a racket and hit. Her parents recall one day in Arizona when Brienne was around six. The older girls were warming up, and she was off to the side hitting against a backboard. Her parents were in the middle, keeping an eye on everyone. "Then we look through the cacti, and we see this coyote kind of wandering around, so we were like, O.K., that's it," says Michelle. "She was upset because we pulled her away from hitting the backboard."
Kristina went on to play at the University of Illinois, and Jasmine played at Georgia Tech before transferring to Oregon. "They got me into the sport," says Brienne of her sisters. "They watched me for many years and even coached me at some tournaments.... They really pushed me to do my best; they watched me so much and really helped guide me through tennis."
Though Brienne didn't spend a lot of time watching pro tennis, she and her sisters did look up to the top two athletes in the sport, who also happened to be African-American: Venus and Serena Williams.
"When we grew up, often we were the only minorities at a tournament," says Jasmine. "That presented a lot of challenges, playing a sport that's predominately white. Being not only black, but also a woman, and watching Venus and Serena handle themselves—handle the challenges that they faced because of their race, because they were women, and handle them so well and so beautifully—that was huge for us."
As a freshman at Carmel High, Brienne was the team MVP, and she was named the school's athlete of the year as a sophomore and a senior. (She sat out her junior year to focus on individual tournaments and go on college visits.) She amassed a 106--7 record and won the state title as a senior before heading to Michigan.
"I watched her for several years," recalls Bernstein. "She's got an all-court game, which I tend to like a lot. She has a big forehand, a big serve. She can come forward, she can volley."
Brienne ended her freshman year at Michigan ranked No. 19 and became the only player in program history to earn All-America honors in singles and doubles in the same season. But she lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, to Miami's Sinead Lohan.
Brienne's first opponent at the 2017 NCAA tournament was a familiar one: Lohan. "I knew I had to be ready for a really long match," says Brienne. "I was also trying to get some revenge. I took it as a little motivation." She rallied from losing the first set 3--6 to take the next two 6--3, 6--3.
Then she won her next match. Jasmine (who was in Washington, D.C., finishing a program through Northwestern's graduate school of journalism) and Kristina (who is a director of athletics compliance at Rutgers University in New Jersey) separately watched their sister's Round of 16 win via a live stream, texting each other furiously. "We were like, Gosh, we gotta go," says Jasmine.
Brienne won her quarterfinal in two sets, then her semifinal in three sets. Brienne knew she was one win away from not only a national title, but also an automatic berth in the U.S. Open. When she defeated Woolcock, she tossed her racket into the air. "The win meant so much," she says. "I had no idea I'd make it that far."
Adds Jasmine, "She's not someone who likes to bask in the glory. She's not someone who likes to post about it and talk about herself. That's what's so great."
Brienne has two years of eligibility remaining at Michigan, and she has plans to turn pro after graduation. But first, she'll travel to New York City and the U.S. Open. Her family members are having a hard time keeping track of all the friends, from every step of Brienne's career, who will be there in August to cheer her on.
Another supporter who will be there? Iron Man. Says Brienne's mom, "We have to make sure that gets to New York."
Photographs by (from top): Richard Hamm/AP; Courtesy Michigan Athletics (with Bernstein); Courtesy of the Minor Family (2)