Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Great Brooksby: He could end U.S. skid, rise to No. 1

Jenson Brooksby and his coach, Joseph Gilbert, pose on Dec. 11 at the Rio Del Oro
Sports Club in Sacramento, Calif. Brooksby first made an impression on Gilbert
while hitting against the wall at Rio Del Oro at 5 years old. Photo by Paul Bauman
   SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In 2006, director of tennis Joseph Gilbert was teaching a lesson at the Rio Del Oro Sports Club when he noticed a 5-year-old boy hitting against the adjacent wall.
   Lots of players, juniors and adults, do that. But Jenson Brooksby was different.
  "He was doing it with such intensity, such focus that I knew he was imagining himself playing a match," Gilbert (no relation to renowned coach and commentator Brad Gilbert) recalled recently. "Jokingly
enough, I looked at him, and I was like, 'Who you playing?' Within a millisecond, he goes, '(Rafael) Nadal,'" Gilbert added with a laugh.
Gilbert was teaching a lesson on the court at the left while Brooksby was
slugging balls against the wall. Photo by Paul Bauman
   "That was the first time I was really like, OK, I would want to coach this kid, because he was so focused. That's what I think a lot of people lack when it comes to tennis. You have to be out there for three to four hours, and these margins are so small. Throw away athleticism for a bit, throw away physicalness, throw away all this stuff that everybody's attracted to. At the end of the day, you've got to concentrate for three to four hours with not much letdown.
   "When I look at kids, I look at kids who can focus for long periods of time. That number is becoming smaller because everything in our life is about not focusing for three or four hours (laughs), whether it's their Instagram, their phone ... The kids I teach now are 18, 19 years old — they can't watch a movie. It's too hard for them; it's too long. A lot of parents ask me, 'What can we work on?' I'm like, 'Play cards, play chess, play games that last for long periods of time to work on their focus.' Jenson was good at that — he could focus for long periods of time. (Regarding) his attributes, that's a big one."
   Recalled Brooksby, who's as mild-mannered off the court as he is intense on it: "I just loved getting the racket and hitting. I always brought that intensity, even in a situation that doesn't seem you'd need to be intense, like hitting balls against the wall. ... I feel like I've kept that same intensity since I was a young kid to now and (will) into the future."
   Gilbert did indeed begin coaching Brooksby six months after the imaginary Nadal match. Fifteen years later, they're still together, but now at the top level of the game.
   Brooksby, 21, earned the ATP Newcomer of the Year award last week in a vote of players after skyrocketing from No. 307 in the world when he turned pro last December to No. 56 in the 2021 year-end rankings.
   The United States leads all nations with 12 men in the top 100. Three are tennis senior citizens in their 30s: No. 24 John Isner, No. 85 Steve Johnson and No. 96 Tennys Sandgren. Six are middle-aged (23 to 28): No. 23 Taylor Fritz, No. 26 Reilly Opelka, No. 38 Frances Tiafoe, No. 43 Tommy Paul, No. 55 Mackenzie McDonald and No. 66 Marcos Giron. And three are young at 20 or 21: No. 41 Sebastian Korda, Brooksby and No. 68 Brandon Nakashima
   According to the candid, outspoken Opelka, Brooksby could climb to the top of the rankings and end the U.S. men's soon-to-be-19-year title drought in Grand Slam singles.
   "The young guys are better than us, if I'm being honest," the 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Opelka, who lost to Brooksby 6-4, 6-4 in the first round in Antwerp in October, told Inside Tennis in October. "Korda is a hell of a player. Brooksby is brutal. He's going to be a big second-week guy. Nakashima is as pure of a ball-striker as there is. The young guys are going to be the guys to beat, from the American standpoint.
   "I'd invest in Brooksby. He's special and could be No. 1. His mind works so differently. He's got this game plan. He sees things so well and is so tricky. Behind the baseline, he reminds me of (Novak) Djokovic. He's got great depth, is a great ball striker, a great mover, (and has) good size and intangibles. He's got this X-factor, his mindset, that could make him a future Grand Slam champion." 
   Brooksby was almost unbeatable on the ATP Challenger Tour, equivalent to Triple-A baseball, in the first half of 2021 as he went 21-3 with three titles. The first loss came after a short turnaround between tournaments in Villena, Spain (elevation 1,657 feet or 550 meters) and Potchefstroom, South Africa (elevation 4,400 feet or 1,340 meters). The second defeat came in a final, and the third came via walkover.
   Brooksby became the first man since Florian Mayer of Germany in 2016 to win hardcourt and clay-court Challengers back-to-back, accomplishing the feat in Orlando and Tallahassee in April. The latter tournament was Brooksby's first on clay in two years.
   All Brooksby did in the second half of the year was:
   —Reach his maiden ATP Tour final in Newport, R.I., in his first grass-court tournament ever.
   —Advance to ATP Tour semifinals in Washington, D.C., and Antwerp.
   —Become the youngest American man to reach the fourth round of the U.S. Open since 20-year-old Andy Roddick in 2002. Roddick won the title the following year, the last singles crown for a U.S. man in a Grand Slam tournament, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
   —Knock off three top-25 players (No. 15 Felix Auger-Aliassime, No. 25 Aslan Karatsev and No. 25 Opelka) and three more top-50 competitors (No. 42 Fritz, No. 43 John Millman and No. 44 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina). The ATP on Wednesday chose Brooksby's 6-3, 6-4 victory over Auger-Aliassime in the third round in Washington as the third-biggest upset of the year.
   "I knew I had the game to get to this level, but I'm a little surprised it all came together so quickly, the jump I made after not playing last year," admitted Brooksby, who sat out in 2020 because of turf toe and pandemic cancellations when he was enrolled at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
   Djokovic praised Brooksby after beating him in four sets in the fourth round of the U.S. Open in September.
   "Brooksby is very talented and intelligent," Djokovic said during his on-court interview. "America has a bright future."
   Brooksby was hardly intimidated by Djokovic or the occasion, steamrolling him 6-1 in the first set in 29 minutes in 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis facility in the world.
   "There's nothing he loves more than playing in front of a big crowd and playing on TV," Gilbert asserted. " ... That's where he shines the most."
   Djokovic should be wary if and when he meets Brooksby again, as he and Gilbert learn quickly. Several times this year, Brooksby lost to a player in their first meeting and won the next time. It happened with Bjorn Fratangelo, the French Open boys singles champion 10 years ago. It happened with 6-foot-8 (2.03-meter) Kevin Anderson, a two-time Grand Slam runner-up. And it happened with Karatsev, who vaulted from No. 112 to No. 18 this year to snag the ATP Most Improved Player award.
   Brooksby doesn't just beat opponents. He often leaves them muttering in frustration.
   During his first-round loss to Brooksby in Antwerp in October, Opelka opined that his young countryman is "the best player I've played in my whole life." That includes Nadal and reigning U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev. Opelka also marveled, "How could Novak win a game against this guy in the first set of the U.S. Open?"
   During the Orlando semifinals, Christian Harrison fumed, "This guy is a freaking nightmare."
   After Brooksby ripped a lunging backhand down-the-line passing shot that landed on the sideline in the Tallahassee final, Fratangelo snapped: "No ----ing way. ... How easy is tennis for you right now?"
* * *
   Although Brooksby has sprouted to 6-foot-4 (1.93 meters), he is not today's prototypical power player. Rather, he's something of a mystery.
   "I feel like his game is underrated," contended Gilbert, who launched the JMG Tennis Academy (his middle name is Morris) 10 years ago. "I feel like people don't know exactly how he's winning. I feel like they don't know the style. It's just not simple, right? It's not just big serve, big forehand wins.
   "They have a tough time figuring out Medvedev because it's very similar. Medvedev is not a great athlete. How is he winning all the time? But that's OK. They called (Brooksby) unorthodox. The last two guys that got called unorthodox are Medvedev and Nadal. I like those guys (laughs). Being called unorthodox is a compliment."
Brooksby has one of the best two-handed backhands
in the world. Photo by Paul Bauman
   So are the comparisons Brooksby has drawn.
   "He has a bit of Djokovic in him; he's got a bit of Medvedev in him; he's got a bit of (Andy) Murray in him," Gilbert said. "A lot of people have compared him to those three players because he's playing a similar stylistic game as them. He's not relying on just (power). He's not playing off of a huge weapon. Murray said it right — he's using slice; he's using different shots. Murray said, 'I enjoy watching him play because it's a little more stylistic, kind of like an art form.' I think it's fun to watch."
   Regarding Brooksby's playing style, Gilbert said: "He has really good hands. He absorbs the ball really well. He has really good feel. He doesn't have too many weaknesses, doesn't have too many holes. He plays patterns a lot. He plays to a strategy, which changes a little bit pretty much every match."
   Gilbert studies videos of opponents the night before a match, tells Brooksby what shots to emphasize in the warmup and meets with his protégé 15 or 20 minutes before the match.
   "I'm like, 'Alright, this is the pattern we're going to play, this is the style we're going to play, these are the shots I want you to use, and this is how you're going to win," Gilbert said. "Then he goes out there, and he has a good ability to focus on that throughout the match."
   Gilbert elaborated on the patterns Brooksby employs.
   "Without getting too specific — people try to dig into the strategy; we try to keep that a little bit close to us because we feel like there (are) only a few guys out there playing the same strategy — we'll talk about when he wants to change direction, what side he wants to play more (against) a certain player, when he wants to be aggressive, what side to come in on, when to use his drop shot, who to use it more against — all those different types of conversations," Gilbert said. "It's a 15-, 20-minute talk before the match. It's not two minutes long. It's like, 'OK, this is where I want you to serve, this is where I want you to hit these shots.' His ability to hit all those shots gives us the flexibility to change the strategy and patterns."
Brooksby practices his serve while Gilbert observes
during the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in Oc-
tober. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Basically, Brooksby wins with metronomic consistency and fierce mental toughness. He possesses one of the best two-handed backhands in the world, a forehand that he says has caught up to his backhand, a great ability to turn defense into offense and a devastating drop shot. Seemingly impervious to pressure, he plays his best on the big points, the mark of a champion.
   "His ball tolerance is obviously high, his consistency is obviously high, but I think it's because he's going after patterns and targets," Gilbert said. "It's a little against what a lot of Americans have been taught — to create that big weapon, to end points fast, serve plus one — big serve, big forehand. It's just a different way to play the game. It's what I believe in — having fewer weaknesses and setting up the points. I'm not particularly worried about having a huge weapon.
   "It matched well for him. If Jenson had to do it based on strength and power and physicality, he's losing a lot of those matches. It doesn't make sense to take a player that's not going to be as big and strong as Serena Williams and tell him to try to outhit Serena Williams. You look at maybe a (Martina) Hingis or a (Justine) Henin, who gave her fits but aren't nearly as big and strong. They're moving the ball around — patterns, different shots, not trying to bang the ball. Those (players) gave her more fits than a (Maria) Sharapova. Sharapova's playing the exact same way (as Williams) but not as big, not as strong, not as physical, not as good at it. Then she goes 0-15 (actually 0-18 during one stretch) against her."
   Brooksby's intangibles, meanwhile, are off the charts.
   "A lot of commentators are saying he's so competitive, and I agree with that 100 percent," Gilbert stated. "Whether we're playing a bounce (short-court) game or he's talking college sports or he's shooting pool, he's so competitive. ... He's one of the (most) competitive kids I've ever seen."
   Brooksby grew up in a competitive environment, both at home and at Gilbert's academy.
   "His mom and dad are super competitive," Gilbert said of Tania and Glen Brooksby. "His mom always had a huge, high belief in Jenson, that he could always do it. She expected him to work hard every time, to compete every time, to be disciplined all the time, to be focused all the time. She really drove that ship."
   Tania Brooksby (née Bentler), in fact, spent a lot of time in the water as a teenager in Van Nuys in the Los Angeles region, earning AAU All-America recognition in swimming.
    "I wouldn't use the word 'intense' (to describe her)," Gilbert said. "She's super loving, super caring but just demanded (Jenson) to work hard. It was about learning and getting better. It wasn't about, is my kid having fun? That's what Tania liked about me. I'm not handing out Jolly Ranchers, playing games and babysitting your kid. I'm not here just for entertainment purposes. I'm here to get better. If your kid doesn't want to get better, I don't want to do it. It's boring for me."
   Like Nadal, Brooksby goes all out on every point. Unlike Nadal, Brooksby is volatile, sometimes flinging his racket in disgust when he struggles. 
   "He doesn't want to give you a point," said Glen Brooksby, a Sacramento anesthesiologist. "Maybe some of that developed because he was always playing up and didn't have a big serve. He wasn't as big and strong and didn't have a putaway shot like the older kids. He had to get balls back, and he wasn't running around the backhand like other kids. He'd always just hit a backhand. He liked hitting backhands. A lot of coaches will say, 'You gotta run around that backhand and hit the big forehand, even at a young age. We never did that; Joe never did that; Jenson never wanted to. I think that helped him develop his backhand.
Brooksby's parents, Tania and Glen, chat with friends during the BNP Paribas
Open. Photo by Paul Bauman
   "He had to find ways to win at that age, and it forced him to grind out points, to play hard on every point. He'd always want to break serve. Even if he's up 4-1, he doesn't want to lose a game. He wants to break again. At 5-1, he wants to hold. A lot of players in the pros will pace themselves, especially if they have a big serve. If they get up a break, they'll coast on the return games knowing they can serve it out. He doesn't have that mentality. He's like, 'I want to win every game. You are going to work hard to hold serve against me. I'm going to break your serve every game.' He tries to do that. Obviously, it's hard, but that's his goal, to win every game. And that makes it easier for his serve. It puts less pressure on his serve if he's up a break or two breaks."
   Jenson admits that he hates to lose.
   "There's no tougher feeling for me," he said. "Getting a bad injury can suck, but there's no bigger feeling than losing, especially when I know there (are) things I could have approached better. It sucks, but it's also part of life. I'm more motivated to win than scared to lose."
   Brooksby's hatred of losing, Gilbert said, "motivates him to focus and put his best points together when it counts."
   During the Antwerp tournament, Tennis Channel commentator and Hall of Famer Tracy Austin crowed:  "His mental toughness is incredible. On the big points, he digs in and hits closer to the line. It's really quite impressive."
   Gilbert helped instill that with countless drills at the academy over the years. Games will start at 40-30 or 30-40. After 15 minutes, the loser moves down one court. Or Brooksby will play a set in which each game starts at 0-30 or 0-40.
   "(The coaches) create scenarios where the points are all really important, and nobody wants to move down a court," Glen Brooksby noted. 
   Work ethic? After beating Brooksby in the Newport final, Anderson said he saw Brooksby on the practice court more than anyone else during the week.
   Commentators unanimously say the only thing holding Brooksby back is his serve, but he and Gilbert disagree. Just give him a little more time, they say.
   "I think it's underrated," Brooksby said of his serve. "I know people say it's the speed, but I know I do have the speed. It's not that. Getting my body stronger and more in shape will naturally improve my serve. I feel like the placement is not mentioned."
   Gilbert put Brooksby's serve into perspective.
   "If you know his background, his serve has improved a ton," Gilbert asserted. "He's grown a lot; he was injured for a year. His physicality hasn't quite caught up to his body. Djokovic was similar in a way. He had to pull out of a lot of Grand Slams when he was younger. His serve wasn't a strong point when he was younger.
   "You've seen Jenson since he was a kid. I mean, he was small. He was small his whole junior career, tiny in comparison to everyone else. Now, all of a sudden, he's 6-4. Well, he's been serving as a small guy forever, so it's never been a thought for him to go after his serve so much. A lot of times, it was just like, hey, hit a serve that just doesn't get attacked (laughs) because you're smaller and weaker than everybody else.
   "Even in the gym now, he's not where he needs to be strength-wise, so we've hired a strength-and-conditioning coach, a very good one, Cassiano Costa (of Costa Performance in Boca Raton, Fla.). They've done a very good job with him in a short period of time."
   Gilbert noted that Brooksby "holds a lot, doesn't get broken a ton. His first-serve percentage is high; his spots are good. These are things I didn't feel they were pointing out in his serve (during the U.S. Open).
   "Yeah, if we get bigger and stronger, adding 10 mph (16.1 kph) doesn't seem terribly impossible, considering he's still a boy. He has pimples; he has no hair on his face. He's still maturing."
   Gilbert is more concerned about Brooksby's mental side.
   "He's emotional," Gilbert observed. "There's a positive side to that and a negative side. Djokovic is super competitive, but as he's matured, he's learned how to control it. Jenson has very little control over this. When he's emotional, I've seen it help him, give him energy, and at the same time, I've seen it suck energy out of him. ... I'm working on his emotions constantly."
   Gilbert also coaches pros Katie Volynets, ranked No. 180 at age 19; Govind Nanda, a 20-year-old former UCLA standout; and Collin Altamirano, who in 2013 became the first unseeded player to win the USTA Hardcourt National 18s (Brooksby won the 12s the same year). Brooksby shares a condominium in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael with Nanda and JMG assistant coach Cam Muller.
   Gilbert's academy — based at Arden Hills, where swimming legends Mark Spitz and Debbie Meyer trained, in Sacramento since 2013 — has sent more than 50 players to Division I schools. Altamirano helped Virginia win the NCAA team title in each of his three years in Charlottesville (2015-17).
   "Joe's a genius," Glen Brooksby proclaimed. "He's one of the top development coaches in the country. Look at the success all of his players have had. All the assistant coaches are good. He selects them; he trains them. And then the parents are dedicated. Most of the kids are home-schooled."
* * *
   How many people — Americans, at least — are named after a race car driver? Glen Brooksby, a racing fan, and Tania christened their only child in honor of British driver Jenson Button, who won the Formula One world championship nine years later. Jenson's middle name is Tyler, hence the nickname J.T.
Gilbert poses with Brooksby and Collin Altamirano after they won the USTA
National Championships on hardcourts in the 12s and 18s, respectively, in 2013.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Glen and Tania took tennis lessons from Gilbert at Rio Del Oro and dragged Jenson along when he was 2. He picked up a racket and began hitting balls. For the next five or six years, Jenson slugged balls off the garage door at home before and after school. 
   "I think he developed good hands because he was doing all kinds of little games," Glen said. "He'd do half-volleys and volleys and then groundstrokes and then move in. I think he really developed kind of a feel for the ball, and he still has a good feel for the ball. He takes pace really well, takes it off the rise when they hit a deep groundstroke instead of backing up."   
   Jenson also played T-ball for a year or two when he was 4 or 5, Glen noted. There were 15 to 20 players on the team, and all played in the field simultaneously. The extra players, including Jenson, spread out around second base. 
   "Some guy would hit it off the tee and lace it down the third-base line, and all the kids would run to where the ball was," Glen recalled. "But by the time they got there, the ball was over here. Jenson was the only one who ran to where the ball would be when he got there. He would field most of the balls because he knew how to intercept the ball."
   When Jenson batted, the coach "would always say, 'You're hitting it like you're hitting a forehand,' Glen said with a laugh.
   After T-ball, Jenson played basketball and soccer in addition to tennis.
   "There were weekends when we were doing soccer tournament, basketball tournament and tennis all in the same weekend in different towns," Glen said. "Something had to give, but it wasn't tennis (laughs).
   "We were seeing the end of the line with soccer because it's really physical. You get a lot of leg injuries. At 11, 12, those boys are really attacking the ball, and I didn't want him to get hurt. We kind of nudged him out of soccer because we didn't want some permanent knee or ankle injury. We knew tennis was going to be his best bet, and that's what he wanted to do mostly."
   Jenson beat Tania and Glen, former USTA League players, for the first time when he was 8 and 10, respectively.
   "We called it the Brooksby Cup," recalled Tania, who owned Bentler Insurance Services until selling it five years ago. "I remember him making me run all over the place. He could just put the ball wherever I wasn't (laughs). Then we took him to dinner."
   Brooksby had a stellar junior career, reaching the final of the Little Mo Nationals in the 8s, 9s and 10s, winning the USTA National Championships on hardcourts in the 12s, advancing to the final of the Clay Court Nationals in the 14s and 16s, reaching the USTA National final on hardcourts in the 16s, and winning the USTA Nationals and Easter Bowl on hardcourts in the 18s.
Brooksby, shown at 12, did not run around his back-
hand as a junior, and he certainly doesn't today.
 Photo by Paul Bauman
   Brooksby could have won more junior titles, but that wasn't Gilbert's philosophy.
   "Joe always wanted him to play up," Glen Brooksby said. "He was 11 or something and made the national clay-court semis. Joe's like, 'OK, now he goes to the 14s.' You don't need to win championships at that age. It's not important. It's more the competition. You want to be pushing yourself all the time, and the only way for top players in one age group to do it is to move to the next age group and play the bigger, stronger players. ... 
   "Joe was always looking for that next level, because to him, it wasn't about the juniors. It's about where (Jenson) is right now. He had the vision to do that with Jenson and the vision to create his game. It's Jenson hitting the shots and Joe creating the game style and the way he hits the ball."
   Brooksby reached the USTA National 16s final on hardcourts at 15 and won the 18s at 17. Instead of trying to make it two in a row in the 18s, he won back-to-back $25,000 tournaments in Illinois against budding professionals and earned ranking points. Two weeks later, the 18-year-old Brooksby qualified for the U.S. Open and stunned 2010 Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych in the opening round for his first tour-level win. In the second round, Brooksby led No. 17 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia by a set and 4-0 before losing in four sets.
   Forgoing $100,000 for reaching the second round of the U.S. Open, Brooksby enrolled at Baylor in January 2020 but never played a match for the Bears. He turned pro on Dec. 8, 2020.
    Just over one year later, Brooksby is training for his first Australian Open after recovering from an abdominal strain that ended his season two weeks early in November. Nadal is questionable for the year's first Grand Slam tournament, Jan. 17-30 in Melbourne, after testing positive for COVID on Monday. He ended a four-month injury layoff in last week's exhibition event in Abu Dhabi.
   Barring more injuries, Brooksby and Nadal figure to meet somewhere, sometime in 2022. This time, it will be for real.

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