SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA | As the English say, it is early days. But given the way Jessica Korda has been playing in 2021, coupled with the history she is playing for and the fact that she now has another champion inside her inner circle, you should keep an eye on the senior sibling in what is now arguably the greatest sporting family in the world.
Korda went out early on Thursday at Olympic Club with her sister, Nelly, and So Yeon Ryu, a marquee threesome that Golf Channel and the USGA streamed as one of their featured groups. Jess shot 1-over 72, a respectable number on a course that isn’t likely to yield many (if any) under-par totals by the end of the week. She walked off the eighth green (because of the way the Lake Course is laid out, play started on No. 1 and No. 9 instead of No. 1 and No. 10) and marched into the scoring area annoyed. But those who have known her for years, and especially followed her for the last 24 months, expected nothing less.
She has always been the extrovert of the sisters, fun-loving and easy to like. If you spend time around the family, you realize that Jess got the best of both of her parents, her mother’s Regina’s height and kindness, her father Petr’s quick hands and quicker wit, and the focus and intensity that made both parents world-class tennis champions.
But early in her career, Jessica might have enjoyed the camaraderie and the trappings and travels of tour life more than the winning. She got the job done in spite of herself. She captured her first title, the Women’s Australian Open, in a six-way playoff when she was only 19, followed by a two-win season in 2014 and another win in 2015 before the grind of the game and troubles with her body hit her. After two winless seasons, she underwent major jaw surgery in 2017 to deal with headaches, facial cramping and sleep apnea. Two months later, she won for a fourth time.
There have been other ailments, most notably a wrist injury that she thought might end her career. Some believe that recovering from those physical ailments rejuvenated her. But there are other reasons that her intensity is different now. Korda is a more focused and disciplined player, a harder worker who hits every shot in practice with a purpose.
It’s hard to get her to admit it, but one of those reasons is the other tall blonde who walked next to her at the Olympic Club on Thursday, her sister Nelly.
Another is the tall blond currently in Europe who became the first American man to win an Association of Tennis Professionals tournament on clay in 11 years – the youngest Korda sibling, brother Sebastian.
Last Sunday, 20-year-old Sebi Korda, as everyone calls him, beat Italian Marco Cecchinato, 6-2, 6-4, in Parma to win the final clay tournament before the start of the French Open at Roland Garros. Jess, who chose to skip the Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play at Shadow Creek last week, watched every point.
“When we’re on the golf course, we’re talking about different shots. And then when we’re at home, it’s what shoes we like.” – Jessica Korda
“It was so cool to watch him win,” she said. “I was actually packing to come here and I forgot some things I needed to pack. We were leaving the driveway, and I go, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t have contacts.’ So, I had to run back into the house and grab my contacts and a fresh towel, which my caddie now has to wash this week. Just small stupid stuff that you can buy. But other than that, it was great. We were so excited to see him win. He’s been in the finals before. He’s been close. And he just kept knocking on the door until it finally opened.”
They feed off of each other, rooting and cheering and encouraging always, but also stepping up their own games to keep up with their fellow Kordas. When Jess was the only active professional in the ranks, it was easy to coast on talent. Her parents were retired and followed her every step. But other than old VHS footage and some still pictures on the wall – Regina in her Olympic attire and Petr jumping over the net when he won the French Open and rose to No.2 in the world – there really wasn’t a lot to push Jess to reach her full potential.
Now, she’s playing next to her motivation. And she’ll be watching every point from Roland Garros.
“We talk about shopping, food, shows – honestly, just like you would talk to your friend,” Jessica said about her relationship with Nelly, who is six years younger and ranked No. 4 in the world. “There’s no golf really ever spoken once we leave the course. We enjoy spending time together. When we’re on the golf course, we’re talking about different shots. And then when we’re at home, it’s what shoes we like.”
A moment he'll never forget 🙌
— ATP Tour (@atptour) May 29, 2021
With Petr and Regina in San Francisco watching the girls, a little tennis might be discussed at dinner. Jess also knows without anyone telling her that there is a lot more golf to be played and ground to make up on a course where anything can happen. “Day One you’re trying not to play yourself out of it,” she said of her up-and-down Thursday. “A little frustrating because I made some silly mistakes. The wind switched up a little bit and it got warmer and we really couldn’t figure it out. But it’s golf. You never know what you’re going to get.”
What you are getting now is a more driven Jessica Korda than at any time in her career. She swears she doesn’t think about it, but she knows that a spot alongside Nelly on the U.S. Olympic team is still within reach. Sebastian could also don the red, white and blue in Tokyo, which would make the Kordas the first three siblings ever to compete in one Olympics in two different sports.
“I’m truly not thinking about that. I know nothing about the timing or anything,” Jessica said when the inevitable Olympic question came up.
But she does know one thing: As ridiculously successful as they all are, only one Korda, Petr, owns a major championship title.
One more thing to keep Jessica Korda grinding.
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