What does one do after retiring from a successful junior and collegiate tennis career? Most people would pursue a professional career or maybe turn to coaching. But Hannah Berner is not most people.
Instead, the 27-year-old set her sights on video production and her latest endeavor: reality television.
After graduating in 2013 from the University of Wisconsin, where she was the MVP of the school's tennis team, Berner considered turning pro before realizing that tennis just didn't bring her the joy it once did. After briefly teaching tennis lessons and a stint in sales for a digital marketing firm, she found her passion as a video producer. She wrote, starred, directed and produced videos for Betches Media until December 2018.
Last spring, she was invited to audition for "Summer House," Bravo's (incredibly addictive) reality show following a group of friends who rent a house -- with a tennis court, of course -- in the Hamptons, where they spend their summer weekends. She was offered a spot, then spent all of last summer filming the show and the past several months waiting for it to air.
The new season premiered last week, and Berner's passion for tennis was on full display as she arrived at the house with a trunk full of new rackets and a serve ready to silence any haters. We caught up with the new reality star as she was watching the second episode (airing at 10 p.m. ET Monday on Bravo) from the comforts of her house in New York City.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
espnW: What made you want to join the show in the first place?
Hannah Berner: After my tennis career, I started to get involved in media. I did some digital marketing and sales, but I fell in love with video. Many athletes have a creative side that they can sometimes suppress, but we're also competitive and hardworking, so whatever creative we decide to do, we go 100 percent into it.
I was making funny videos, and I had some friends on the show already, and my name was thrown in the mix. I realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some people might be a little more scared about the situation, but because of my past in athletics and being a tennis player, I'm like, "What can reality TV be that's too difficult to deal with?"
espnW: I'm guessing there were challenging moments in filming.
Berner: Oh my God, yeah. But, I'm not going to lie, I've been missing the high of sports. I've been looking for that high of excitement you get from hitting a winner or your team winning the match, and reality TV brought me that high again, of kind of creating something that the whole nation's gonna watch.
espnW: What are some specific ways tennis helped prepare you for reality television?
Berner: If you watch the top 500 tennis players in the world practice, you're not gonna see much difference, in terms of technique or anything. It's literally just a sick mind game. Reality TV is also a sick mind game, so I was kind of into the whole mental chess game of it all because that's what tennis is. I've dealt with mean girls in tennis before. They're slightly less physical in reality TV, but it's still the same kind of situation.
espnW: It feels like you were more than ready for the drama of reality TV.
Berner: You know, it's funny, I never said any of this aloud before, but now talking to you, I'm like, "Oh, duh!" Sports is the best version of reality TV, I think. I got in a fight with my ex-boyfriend because he wouldn't watch "The Bachelor," but he'll watch WWE. I'm like, "It's the exact same thing." Anyone who watches sports likes watching reality, and with the highs and lows and the agony of defeat and heartbreak, it's seriously the same stuff.
espnW: What drama did you experience as a tennis player?
Berner: So much drama! I wasn't used to drama, actually, off the court. I grew up in a great family. I had good friends. But the second I was on the court, it was game time, and I got into the craziest drama. I would cry on the court all the time. I mean, tennis and crying -- that's what happens if you're losing a match or a girl beats you. And when you're not playing pro, you're calling your own lines. Do you know how much drama that causes? Imagine kids calling their own fouls in a basketball game. It was insane. We all are fighting for scholarships and sponsorships, so imagine a national tournament in Arizona. It's deuce, 5-all in the third, and I hit a second serve on the line, and she calls it out. I lose my s---. It caused me to be more emotionally mature, as I grew up, but yeah, tennis is drama.
espnW: When did you start playing tennis?
Berner: I was 3. I had a coach and was playing in real tournaments by the time I was 8. It's so crazy, 'cause when you're living it, it's just what's happening, but now that I'm 27, I'm like, "You were a literal infant." I started playing national tournaments by 11, and by 14, I was ranked No. 15 in the nation for juniors.
espnW: At that point, what were you envisioning as your future in the sport?
Berner: I told my parents when I was 8 I wanted to be a professional tennis player. I loved all sports. I played basketball. I played softball. I golfed, and I loved all of them, but there was something about tennis, where, being alone out there, when you would do well, there was such a high from it, and I'm kind of an independent person. My parents asked the pro at wherever I was practicing, "Do you think she can go pro?" He was like, "Eight years old is too late to start getting serious." I cried that whole day. And I had this chip on my shoulder, like, "I am going to be a professional tennis player, and everyone else can go f--- off."
The reality is, you might see a 6-year-old at Bollettieri [IMG Academy] or any of the academies, but that same kid could be completely burned out by 12 or want to start a band by 16. There's so much about the mental health aspect that no one addresses. Parents are so often like, "Oh, she has talent. She's going to do it." And you need to make sure she's emotionally fulfilled throughout this, or she's not going to have the passion for going pro.
espnW: Did you feel like you like you were emotionally fulfilled while playing juniors?
Berner: Passion is what differentiates you. At 14, there were girls who were better than me, but I cared more and [was] willing to work so much harder, and it pushed me to that next level, so coaches told my parents, at 14, "If she wants to go pro, she can't compete with the girls in Florida who are hitting three times as many balls." I moved to Florida to train at the Adams-Flynn International Tennis Academy [in Pembroke Pines] for two years because I thought that was the next step to go pro. I was playing six hours a day, at least an hour training in the gym afterward. By 16, I was ranked in the top 250 in the world for under-18.
espnW: Did you feel like your dream was starting to come true?
Berner: I was on that trajectory to go pro, but then I basically had a breakdown. I was not happy, and I missed my family, and I was putting way too much pressure on myself. I was working on changing my full-hand grip, and there was so much pressure because my parents were paying for all this travel. Even though my ranking was great, I didn't feel my happiest. I went back home at 16, and I told my dad, "I don't know if I can do this." I remember, we were on the tennis court, and he said, "I'm gonna hit you this ball, and you can tell me if you wanna keep playing or not, and regardless of what you say, I'll still love you." I'm starting to get deep here -- but I hit the ball, and I was like, "I have more in me."
espnW: What happened next?
Berner: This is where s--- gets interesting. I ended up playing for the boys' tennis team at Beacon High School (New York, New York) because they didn't have a girls' team. So here I am, an internationally ranked player playing on a public high school team, and I was playing my own tournaments on the side, but they had a really good boys' team, so I just decided to play, and other people weren't happy that we were really good, and we won both years. We won the Public School Athletic League Championship in New York City, and some coaches were not happy that I was playing and they couldn't play their girls. They said it's a lose-lose for the guys. It caused such a stir. It was in the Daily News, New York Post and the New York Times. Ultimately, when we had to play in the end of the year, we won the team championship. Then they had a singles championship, and they said, "Hannah needs to play with the girls." I had a lot of pressure to show that I deserved to be on the boys' team, and I ended up winning. I was so nervous that I could barely swing.
I ended up winning the public school singles championship and was named the New York City female tennis player of the year or some s---. It was the first time that I realized I never dealt with sexism before because I always practiced with the boys, but we never competed against one another. This was me in their space, and I think it was really important to show that I could hang and that I wasn't intimidated or scared. The best part of all this, besides all the bulls--- awards, is when I then got a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, the Public School Athletic League granted our school the money to have a girls team -- that my dad then coached.
espnW: That is an incredible story. How did your experience at Wisconsin compare?
Berner: I was No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles for most of my time there, and I was named team MVP my senior year. But by the time my senior year came around, I realized that competition just wasn't making me happy anymore. I loved practice, but I actually didn't like the competition. I liked getting better, but competition was judgment day for me. I was so hard on myself. I started to think, "I think I have more to me than just tennis."
It was still difficult for me because a lot of my friends were going pro. I grew up with Christina McHale, Nicole Gibbs and CoCo Vandeweghe. We played together, so seeing them be so successful is incredible, but it just wasn't for me anymore. I thought I would just have to go sit at a desk for the rest of my life and give up on all my dreams. I was depressed for a year and a half, and then I realized other things sparked joy for me.
espnW: How did you get to that point?
Berner: It took a while because my whole identity was tennis. And not to mention, going pro is difficult for many reasons, but one of which is the cost and expense. Unlike being part of a team sport, you're basically an entrepreneur, and if you don't win or get a sponsor, you don't get paid. Imagine the players on the Knicks only getting paid if they won!
espnW: If the Knicks think it's hard to get players to play for them now ...
Berner: Exactly. I don't mean to throw shade, but I'm just saying -- I had to make a decision financially and emotionally. I think it's important for athletes to know there's life beyond your sport. There's so much more that your sport gave to you besides the trophies that are in your basement right now. That experience, I think, made me emotionally prepared and confident enough. People say to me all the time, "You're so fearless!" and I'm like, "It took me a long time to be fearless, 'cause I wasn't always fearless on the tennis court." My more mature, 27-year-old side realizes I wish I just was playing for the joy of it instead of for the joy of other people being happy that I won.
Now, I don't have any coaches. My parents are not involved at all, and I feel this freedom that I didn't feel with tennis. It's still like performing. Tennis was performative, and now I'm a video producer, and I'm on this show. I feel like I always was like, "Why the hell did I put 20 years of my life into this sport that I was so good at, and it didn't pan out for me?" Sometimes, if you're really good at something, it doesn't mean it's your long-term thing, and sometimes tennis was the perfect thing for me, when I was 18, but now there's just so much room for so many different dreams in your life, and just because you're really a special athlete means you're probably special at other things, too.
espnW: Do you still watch tennis?
Berner: I couldn't watch tennis for at least a year because I was too sensitive. People would be like, "Do you want to come to the US Open?" I was like, "I don't wanna pay to watch my friends play." I just can't get myself to do that. Now, tennis is my favorite sport to watch. I think, specifically, women's tennis is so interesting because the serving holds are not as predictable, and the personalities are so great, and I love watching tennis and appreciate the sport for what it is.
espnW: Do you still keep in touch with any of the players you grew up with?
Berner: Mostly just on social media. Occasionally we'll get coffee or something. It's funny, though, when we were growing up together, they were just the person standing in the way of your goal, and you had to play them. They wanted to beat you, and now, years later, we now can connect on a whole different level. That is really special. We had to learn how to not deal with women like they're your competition because, in reality, out of sports, women are actually your greatest asset because they just understand you.
espnW: That is so true. I know CoCo Vandeweghe is a huge Bravo fan. Have you heard from her about the show?
Berner: Not yet! But I had one of my most dramatic matches against CoCo. It was the second round of the 14-unders national tournament, and she was the 8-seed, and I was unseeded. I was up 5-2 in the first set, and it would have been a huge win for me. She was freaking out, having a nervous breakdown. She has such a temper, so CoCo's throwing her racket around, and she breaks it. It's so bad, the umpire gives her a point penalty. Somehow that seemed to calm her right down, and she comes back to win the set and then the match. My dad kept saying, "But you had it!" We couldn't believe it. I'll always remember that match. I would love to reconnect with her because we could probably laugh about that now. She won, so she's probably over it, but I'm not!
espnW: Do you still play?
Berner: I taught tennis after graduating, but now but now I just play with former college players and professionals or with professionals who are just back in the city and wanna hit it. Honestly, it's fun to just be able to come in for one day and for an hour, go hard, and then be like, "OK, I'm putting the racket down now." I still love the sport more than anything, and I was so happy that Bravo gave me this chance to put it on a platform to show just that women can be really f---ing athletic and good at what they do.
espnW: Even though you haven't seen an episode yet, what do you think we can expect from you this season?
Berner: Well, you get a ton of humor. You definitely get some tennis clips, and you also get to see that I'm 27. I'm still coming of age, I'm still establishing what I want my career to be. I'm single, so I'm still figuring out my love life. I also think that you see a vulnerable side to me. A lot of people know me from videos online or my tweets, but you get to see those are so curated, in that this is two sentences, and the one minute video you're laughing at took me three days to write and four days to edit.
[On the show], you're just seeing [me] being me. It is vulnerable, but I think that's important. I was always vulnerable on the tennis court, and sometimes it was bad because I'd start crying or freaking out, but now, being vulnerable, when I'm crying, is actually is good. I have to laugh at myself. I didn't want to cry at all on TV, and when I did, I was like, "Don't be that girl!" but I'm honestly OK with it.
espnW: Would you do it again if they asked you to come back for next season?
Berner: We don't know anything about next season yet, but as it's going so far, I think I would. I've established real friendships, and it would almost be weird for them to go to the house without me now. I would feel so left out!
espnW: Which tennis players would you love to see on a reality show?
Berner: Oh, this is easy: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Serena Williams wears her heart on her sleeve, and she puts her foot in her mouth all the time because she's Serena Williams and she kind of can, but then I think Maria Sharapova would be the popular girl in high school who no one really likes but everyone respects. Everyone wants to be her, but no one likes her, and they're definitely afraid of her in the hallway. Wouldn't you want to watch them together?