By Nick McCarvel, special to USTA.com
Twelve months ago, Mallory Burdette was in the middle of what Stanford University calls "dead week." It’s the batch of classes that comes just before finals, when students spend late nights in the library studying, which is something the junior psychology major was doing plenty of while also balancing her time as captain of the Cardinal women’s tennis team.
A year later, the 22-year-old is spending the same week working hard at her base in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., following her terrific showing at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., where she won four matches – two in qualifying, two in the main draw – to reach the third round.
Burdette’s decision to forego her senior season at Stanford following a run to the US Open third round last September was questioned by many, but six months later, with her focus solely on tennis, the world No. 104 seems to be hitting her stride.
"When I made the decision to leave school, I had gotten a lot of input from a lot of different people, but the decision ultimately came from me because it was really something I wanted to go for in my life," Burdette said. "I’ve learned so much in being on the tour for just seven months. I think when you really step out on a limb and go for something that you want to do is when you learn the most."
Burdette’s performance at Indian Wells included a straight-sets win over No. 23 Tamira Paszek, her biggest victory to date. In the third round, she took eventual semifinalist and world No. 13 Maria Kirilenko to three sets before falling, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.
Burdette’s professional journey began in July 2012, when she received a wild card into the Bank of the West Classic, a WTA and Emirates Airline US Open Series event held each summer on the same courts where she played three years of college tennis. She made the second round, and the result spurred her on to try to earn a wild card into the US Open just over a month later.
The USTA was awarding one women's singles wild card to the player who earned the most WTA ranking points at two of three USTA Pro Circuit hard-court events leading up to the US Open – the $50,000 events in Yakima, Wash., and Lexington, Ky., and the $100,000 tournament in Vancouver. The two-time NCAA doubles champion won Vancouver, and with the victory, earned a spot in the US Open main draw.
"When I started out the summer, I had no idea that I would end up with a wild card," Burdette said. "I had nothing to lose at that point. I wasn't feeling any pressure whatsoever. I felt like I was playing with house money in a lot of ways. You can't beat being in New York at the US Open. It was an awesome experience."
It was there that she made the third round, where she went up against four-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova.
"When I went out to warm up in Arthur Ashe Stadium the morning before I played Maria, it was a pretty eye-opening experience as to how huge the stadium was, and there weren't even any people in there," Burdette remembered. "At that point, I was pretty nervous, and it was hard to warm up properly. ... I was just taking in the moment. I was just like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a great experience.’"
While Burdette lost to Sharapova in straight sets, the effort in New York encouraged her to turn pro, and in the fall she worked her ranking up to No. 142. Then came a dose of reality. The Macon, Ga., native lost two first-round qualifying matches at Australian Open tune-ups in Sydney and Brisbane, returning to the States with utter determination to find her form again.
"Australia was pretty rough for me," Burdette said. "After that trip, I was looking forward to having a few weeks to sort of break it down and practice and train really hard. I really took advantage of that time and worked really hard. I think it really paid off."
It has. Since then, she’s gone 7-3, making the semifinals of the $100,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Midland, Mich., before finding success at Indian Wells.
Burdette has worked with her coach Nick Saviano since she was 11 and has a trusted sports psychologist. And while she has approached her pro tennis the way she did her Stanford studies, the relaxed Southern girl has plenty of outside interests. She loves animals, she devours books (she just finished "Life of Pi") and can’t get enough of apples, her favorite food. Burdette is also close friends with another fast-rising American, Sloane Stephens.
"There is a great camaraderie between all the American players," Burdette said. "You feel like you have kind of a crew when you're on the road. Sloane is like a little sister to me. I always love hanging out with her."
This week, as her former classmates are heading into exam rooms, Burdette is heading back on court at the Sony Open in Miami, where she is in the qualifying draw. And though she’d like to perform well, if her success isn’t as consistent moving forward, she’s not overly concerned.
"It’s a lot of hard work. I'm exhausted at the end of every day," Burdette said. "But even if I don’t win another match playing on the pro tour, I think I'm very happy with my decision – happy that I decided to go for it."