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In a country with roughly ten times the population of Australia, one Australian is trying her hardest to carve out a living on the WTA tour. Kaylah McPhee, the 26-year-old from Brisbane, has overcome plenty in her short career.

So navigating Brazil’s largest city, while sitting through almost a full week of rain delays, is nothing to stress over. ‘The First Serve’ was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to talk with Kaylah about where she started, her current comeback, season goals, and the setbacks that have laid roadblocks in her path, on the way to tennis glory.

Kaylah began playing on her parents home court at the age of 6, taking enjoyment from being able to participate in a sport with the grown-ups. Soccer was similarly a passion for the Queenslander, but at age 12, a decision had to be made, and it was tennis that got the green light.

McPhee’s path was a little different from a lot of other players, so much as she barely played the ITF junior circuit, and wasn’t part of the Tennis Australia academy until she was 16, when the cost of trying to make it on the world tour finally caught up.

“It was no longer affordable for my parents to keep paying a private coach.”

She started her professional career in Toowoomba, at the age of 15, winning her first-round match at an ITF 15K.

From there, her career moved in an upward trajectory. Gaining experience across the ITF tour, Kaylah was awarded a Wildcard into the 2019 Australian Open qualifying, winning a match, before going on to break into the top 200 later in the year at age 21. Kaylah was again awarded a Wildcard into the 2020 Australian Open, but sadly, this was the final straw for her banged up body.

“I’d finally gotten to 200….got through the grind from the 400’s to 200. I’d had a bad shoulder since I was young. Since I was 13, I’d been getting cortisone injections. At the AO in 2020 I was ranked 220 odd, and I saw the doctor because my shoulder was so bad, I could barely lift my arm before my matches.

The doctor said I had shoulder instability. I was told I’d need 12 weeks off to strengthen it. I was devastated. I was like, ‘ok I’ll take 6, but I’m not taking 12’.”

Unfortunately for Kaylah, the shoulder just didn’t improve further. Scans showed up nothing, further fueling the frustration.

“Six months goes by, and I was extremely antsy to get back playing. I was desperate to play the Slams.”

It was then she reached out to another Australian player, who had a pretty handy contact.

“I asked James Duckworth if I could see his dad, because his dad is a shoulder surgeon. He told me, ‘If you wake up with a sling on, it means there was something wrong, and if you wake up with no sling, it means I didn’t find anything’.

“I woke up in a sling.”

The diagnosis was a torn labrum. The labrum is a ring of cartilage which surrounds the shoulder joint, to help keep the joint in place. It is often hard to diagnose, and has a slow recovery process….as Kaylah knows all too well.

“I did 3 hours of rehab a day.”

Unfortunately, even that kind of dedication wouldn’t get her back on court.

“It was nearly a year later, when I was told, ‘It looks like you’re never going to get back on court, because your shoulder is unstable still. Even though we fixed the tear, we haven’t actually fixed the problem.”

This left her in an unenviable position where a decision had to be made on a second surgery. The surgery required a tightening of the joint, meaning McPhee was given the news that, potentially, she may never be able to serve again, thus putting a full stop on any comeback plans.

“But as my doctor said, ‘it doesn’t look like you’re going to get back on court’. So I took the plunge for my second surgery. It went perfectly. I don’t think it could’ve gone much better. I was able to hit and train after 6 months. Then 6 months after that, I was playing tournaments.”

All in all, the shoulder injury kept her out of the sport she loves, for 2 and a half years.

The one positive to come out of it, is that tennis is no longer taken for granted anymore. During the forced hiatus, Kaylah was forced to make ends meet any way she could, dipping her toe into tennis coaching, delivering Uber Eats, babysitting, and even starting her own candle company.

“Mentally it was a terrible time, not knowing if I would ever play again. It was the worst time of my life. But ever since I’ve been back, it’s been good.”

She now travels with her fiancé, Jarrod, who is also her coach.

“We’ve been travelling for 2 years. It hasn’t been as easy as what I thought, to get back to where I was. I kind of felt like I’d just be 200 again, but as it turns out, you come back, and you’re 1000, and then you’re 900, and then 800, and then 700. It just did not go as I thought it would. I still work. I’ve got a job in SEO, which I do 20 hours a week.”

Jarrod also has a remote job, allowing them to travel together, all the while, pursuing the dream of ‘making it’ on the WTA Tour. That dream is certainly racking up some frequent flyer miles. This year already, Kaylah has played in Australia, Thailand, South Africa, Tunisia, and now Brazil.

“We actually have the worst schedule, but it’s good, because we get to see new places and have new experiences.”

“I think I’m playing some of the best tennis that I ever have. I really hope I can get back to where I was”.

Following a week of rain delays in Sao Paulo, and a disappointing first round loss, Kaylah headed to the coastal city of Florianopolis for a second week in Brazil. It turns out, her previous comments were somewhat prophetic.

Competing in the W75 event, McPhee achieved her best result since 2019, reaching the semi-finals, before going down to a player who was, according to Kaylah, ‘…playing top 100 level.

She played unbelievable. I was playing good tennis. She was just way too good for me today. Discussing her goals for the remainder of the season, it’s clear that simply staying on court, is the highest priority in her life right now.

“My goal is to stay healthy. I have a tendency to want to push things a bit too far. Luckily Jarrod holds me back when I need to be held back.

I hurt my knee the other day. I was having flashbacks to that sinking feeling, of how long is this going to be. The thought of having to skip a tournament was bringing me back to the PTSD of my shoulder.

As an athlete, it’s the worst thing to happen. It’s worse than losing every week. It’s a horrible feeling not even getting to put your hat in the ring. I’m that grateful that I just get to play.”

When it comes to her on-court game, it’s the mental side of things more than anything, that Kaylah sees the biggest gains.

“I’m working on my composure at the moment. Just letting frustrating events go, whether it’s a bad bounce, bad call, bad shot.

The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and then it’s no longer a chore, its just the way you go about things.”

I’m also working on my commitment. My whole career I’ve struggled with committing to my game style, and what I want to do. I often become too passive. We’re pushing for that extra level of commitment and composure.”

For now, she says where her ranking sits isn’t a huge priority in her life. But you get the feeling, deep down, she has something to prove to herself.

“I’m happy as long as my ranking is moving upwards. It would be a dream to get my ranking up to where it was, prior to my injury. I’m more focused on the way I go about things than my actual ranking.

I have the kind of personality where I check it every single day. I check everyone’s rankings all the time, but somehow it’s becoming less and less important.

As long as I make enough money to keep going, I’m happy. I’m just enjoying playing.”

When pressed as to what might have clicked this week in Florianopolis, she said it all came back to that composure her and her team have been working on.

“It gives me a lot of confidence going forwards because I know I can win a lot of matches by just being mentally strong.”

Following her strong result in Brazil, Kaylah’s ranking jumps more than 30 places to around 338.  She has made the trek to Hammamet, Tunisia this week for the W35 event where she has had a first round win 6-3, 6-2 defeating Italy's Viola Turini.


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