Growing up in Cerritos, Calif., Duke freshman Kelly Chen always dreamed of one day playing on the biggest stage in American tennis: the U.S. Open. That dream came true not once, not twice, but three times in her successful junior career. 

Most recently, the dream continued as Chen made her way into the third round of the Junior Girls Tournament this past summer. After two successful outings in the first- and second-rounds, Chen was upended by Emiliana Arango, the eventual U.S. Open junior semifinalist and current No. 11 junior in the world. However, her play up to that point was a journey in itself.

Chen successfully made her way through the first seven rounds to advance to the USTA Girls’ 18 national championship. Though the incoming Blue Devil freshman lost a grueling three-set match, there was no time to look back on her run—she had to prepare for the next match against one of the top players in women’s tennis. With the runner-up finish, Chen was rewarded with a wild card into the women’s singles qualifying draw. She was matched up with the No. 1 player in her draw: Su-Wei Hsieh of Chinese Taipei. Chen, a player who had yet to step foot on a college campus, was taking on the former No. 23 singles player in the world. 

“These pros are really great out there and [in] the qualifying as well,” Chen said. “Honestly, I just wanted to have fun, try my best.”

Although all Chen really wanted to get out of playing in the qualifiers was a memorable experience and a good time, she received something greater that could serve her well throughout the next few years in college and beyond. In her defeat to the No. 1 qualifier, she discovered that she could play at the next level. Chen fought hard, but eventually lost in three sets 3-6, 6-2, 7-6(3).

Chen found herself in an unusual situation immediately following her tiebreak defeat: she was walking off the court at U.S. Open, and right into her freshman year. She missed playing in the main event against the best in the world with the loss in the qualifying draw, but had a mere week to prepare for her third and final U.S. Open Junior Girls appearance. Chen made the most of her minimal, yet valuable time.

“A lot of match plays. A lot of sets,” the freshman said. “[I] needed to work on some stuff here and there, but very little practice, an hour or two here and there.”

After taking down Italy’s Monica Cappelletti 6-2, 7-6(4) in the first round, Chen faced the sixth-seeded junior playing in this year’s Open, Xin Yu Wang of China. In Chen’s two previous appearances at the U.S. Open—2014 and 2015—she was not able to make it past the second round. Her previous struggles getting over this hurdle gave Chen a no-quit mentality in her third attempt. In the end, all she could do was smile after a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 win over Wang.

“I kind of surprised myself in the second set. Actually, in the third, I was down 3-0, I was like, ‘Oh great, I’m going to lose 6-0 in the third,’” Chen said. “I just wanted to fight out there. I never made it past second round in juniors.... I wanted to get past [the] second round, get out of that second-round thing.”

With that win, Chen cleared the hurdle and advanced to the third round in her last year of eligibility at the event. Although Chen was defeated 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 in a match that lasted nearly two hours, her coach found many positives in her play.

“It was awesome,” Blue Devil assistant coach Matt Manasse said. “For her to be in her last grand slam, or at her last junior match, was a great experience for her, and to be able to guide her and kind of learn her game, because that was my first real week coaching her, was awesome to do it in such a big stage.”

For Manasse, it wasn’t his first time coaching a player at the U.S. Open. 

“Last summer, I coached Alison Riske. She’s top-40 in the world,” Manasse said. “I coached her the first round the opening night on [Arthur] Ashe [Stadium] against Madison Keys.”

Some of Chen’s run can be attributed to the individuals in the stands supporting the new Blue Devil: alongside Manasse sat Chen’s father and other family members. 

“It is always great to have family support you.” Chen said. “They come all the way out from California, taking their time, so I really appreciated that.”

With the U.S. Open now in the past, Chen and Manasse, who is in his first year on the Blue Devils’ staff, can look forward to a freshman year for both of them at Duke.

Although the freshman was ranked No. 4 in the ITF Freshman/Newcomer poll, she knows that it is only the beginning. 

“It’s great to be ranked that high, but a number is just a number,” Chen said. “There’s other great freshmen out there.”

Chen is only in her first few weeks in a college environment, but her adjustment will likely be seamless relative to most first-year players. Her recent success in the USTA Championship and the U.S. Open has accelerated her timeline to thrive at Duke. But there is still a lot to improve for the self-described “counter puncher” on the court.

“The last two months, she’s been put in a ton of high-pressure situations in the juniors and at the pro level, where she played [qualifiers] at the Open. I think anytime when you can come through when all the chips were down, which she’s done repeatedly, is just going to give her more confidence and I think now being in a college environment, it’s added another level of pressure.” Manasse said. “The more times she’s put in that situation, the more times it is going to be normal for her and I think you’ll see the results getting better and better.”

For many successful junior players in today’s professional tennis atmosphere, the prospect of delaying one’s pro status and losing a year to gain valuable WTA points seems daunting. For that reason, many aspiring pros bypass college and start to play in professional events regularly before their 18th birthday. 

But, for Chen, Duke offers the opportunity to develop into a higher-level player as well as a better teammate, as the college mindset differs drastically from the professional individual mentality. The Tennis Recruiting Network’s No. 4 player in the Class of 2017 committed to play for the Blue Devils after hearing from several top-tier programs.

“Honestly, out of all the schools I visited, when I came here, it really felt like family. Everybody here was so nice,” Chen said. “They were really supportive so I think that was overall why I chose Duke.”

The Blue Devils embark on their season coming off a Round of 16 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament last spring. The Blue Devils added Chen and London native Ema Lazic to a strong returning core as they look to advance even farther this season.

“Hopefully, I want our team to place in the top eight.” Chen said. “Overall, for me, [I want] to do the best I can freshman year.”