It didn’t take long for then-budding tennis star Serena Williams to make an impression on her hitting partner. The first time Brad Thyroff practiced with her, when she was a 15-year-old prodigy prepping for a professional tournament in Chicago two decades ago, he could feel her power each time one of her ground strokes or serves drove into his racket strings. The former Pittsford Mendon High School tennis All-American and men’s satellite tour professional also marveled at Serena’s agility; how swiftly she scampered to and fro to retrieve his shots.
“You could see immediately she had a lot of potential, a lot of God-given talent,” Thyroff recalled recently. “But I’d be lying if I said I knew at that point that she would become what she has.”
What she has become is the most dominant female tennis player of all time. In fact, few athletes have ever ruled their sports the way the 34-year-old Williams has ruled hers. The gulf between her and the next best player in the world has been similar to the canyonesque gap between Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps and their peers. During her reign as tennis queen, Williams has won 86 percent of her singles matches, 21 Grand Slams, and was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year in 2015 after going a mind-boggling 55-3 and winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
The only significant records she doesn’t own are those for career Grand Slams—22 by Steffi Graf in the modern era and 24 by Margaret Court overall. Williams is attempting to tie Graf with a championship at Wimbledon in London these next two weeks. And few are pulling harder for her than Thyroff, who was on the ground floor for the launch of her historic career, as well as the career of her talented older sister, Venus Williams, who might have held the title of world’s best had she not played in the same era as Serena.
Thyroff spent three years as the hitting partner for sports’ most famous sister act. That included plenty of time swatting tennis balls back and forth with them on the three courts at their parents’ home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., as well as on courts throughout North America. His job, as an elite male player in his early 20s at the time, was to compete against them in a way that exceeded anything they would face against the world’s top-ranked women’s players.
After a few years as a professional player and a year as Jana Novotna’s hitting partner, Thyroff was hired by the girls’ father, Richard Williams, their longtime coach and manager.
“In those days, there was this perception of Richard being almost a madman,” Thyroff said. “But from the moment I met him, he couldn’t have been nicer. He was always putting my needs and comforts above his, making sure I was taken care of. During his daughters’ tournaments we often roomed together. We had many meals together. I learned about the way he viewed the world, the racism he had to overcome. He was incredible to me. I still stay in touch.”
That’s not to say Williams was not an intense coach. “Once, after finishing an hour-long hitting session with Serena, Richard asked me if I would run wind sprints with her,” Thyroff said. “I was pretty fast, so I did, and when I was done I was gassed, almost nauseous. I had to go into the locker room and compose myself before beginning my hitting session with Venus. Thankfully, Richard didn’t make me run sprints with Venus, too.”
Thyroff recalls stringing rackets at the Williamses’ home one day when the sisters came in and began vacuuming and dusting. “Richard comes up to me with this big smile and says, ‘Brad, how do you like this scene? I got two multimillionaire teenagers out here doing chores.’ I told him, ‘I love it. You are teaching them good lessons.’”
Over time, Thyroff became friends with the sisters, got to know them as more than just tennis phenoms. They shared meals, watched television and even attended a Michael Jackson concert together. “There were nights when we would be riding back to the hotel after a late match and they would fall asleep on my shoulders,” he said. “I was happy that I was more than just an employee to them.”
Thyroff quickly learned about their contrasting personalities. Venus was more introverted, while Serena was outgoing and occasionally temperamental. “Serena was more gregarious; she enjoyed the limelight and attention a lot more,” he said. “If things weren’t going well for her, she might take it out on you, even if you hadn’t done anything wrong. But she had her sweet side, too. She could be the most fun-loving, kind person in the world.”
Serena has always been a fashionista, to the point where she developed her own successful clothing line. One time, Thyroff asked her to sign one of her tennis outfits so he could have a keepsake. “She was a practical joker, so I figured I’d get it back with some sarcastic remark written on it,” he said. Instead, Serena floored him with the following inscription: “To Brad, One of my best friends, always and forever. Love, Serena.” Thyroff framed the memento and gave it to his parents.
Thyroff’s crowning moment occurred at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens in 1999 when Serena, then 17, shocked the tennis world by upsetting Martina Hingis to win the U.S. Open for her first Grand Slam title.
On his way out of the stadium that evening, Richard Williams hugged Thyroff. “Richard told me she wouldn’t have won this without me,” he said. “I said, ‘Richard, I know that’s not true, but I’ll always appreciate you saying that to me.’ I get goose bumps just thinking about it.”
Weary after five years on the road, Thyroff made the difficult decision to quit Team Williams in 2001 and return to Rochester to get on with his life. The father of two young kids currently works as an assistant to David Flaum, founder and CEO of Flaum Management Inc. Thyroff, 43, keeps his hand in tennis by teaching four to six hours a week at Midtown Athletic Club and through his work as the founder of the Rochester Tennis Hall of Fame.
Although he hasn’t been in touch with the Williams sisters in years, he continues to follow them. He is proud that he played a small role in the launching of Serena’s unmatched tennis career.
Best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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