Unorthodox. Unrelenting. Unyielding.
There are many ways to describe the game style of 21-year-old American Jenson Brooksby, the Sacramento native who has made a significant mark on the ATP tour over the last 52 weeks. With an off-the-charts compete level, Brooksby has emerged as a rising force on the ATP Tour, and many believe that the intangibles in his game are what will eventually set him apart from his peers.
Another adjective that sums up Brooksby’s greatest strength? Pugnacious.
“He is such a fighter, and for so long we were saying, ‘Oh, maybe the Americans aren’t tough enough or maybe they’re not grinding enough,’ and he’s the opposite,” Lindsay Davenport said in a conference call to promote Tennis Channel’s coverage of the BNP Paribas Open last week. “He’ll stay out there and do whatever it takes to win.”
Most admit that the Jenson Brooksby experience is, well, an experience. He plays a brand of tennis that contradicts his calm, almost stoic off-court personality. In a tour full of stylistic copycats, the 21-year-old is a bit of an enigma. His strokes are quirky, his demeanor is snarly. While much of the ATP plays in fourth or fifth gear, Brooksby switches into overdrive immediately after the coin toss and rarely downshifts.
“Jenson comes out, he plays a little different than a lot of the other people do, but he has a great sense of the game, he’s got something that is tough to teach people, in terms of the decisions that he makes, the depth that he creates, and he’s a great competitor—that’s about the best thing that you can say about an athlete,” says Jose Higueras, the 1983 champion at Indian Wells and a former world No.6. “I don’t go out of my way to watch a lot of people to be honest, because when I’m at tournaments sometimes it can become a little monotonous, because everybody plays pretty much pretty similar, but there are some players that I always make an effort to go watch because I love tennis and I enjoy watching them and Jenson is one of them.”
Brooksby’s coach Joseph Gilbert, who has worked with Jenson since his formative years, says that the pair have pressed hard to cultivate a brand of tennis that can be successful against the world’s top players.
Last year they found out that they were on the right track.
Brooksby stormed onto the scene in 2021, rising from outside the top 300 to a year-end ranking of 56. Along the way he turned heads with regularity, reaching his first ATP final at Newport, then upsetting Felix Auger-Aliassime for his first top-20 win en route to the semifinals at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C.
A few weeks later Brooksby became the youngest American man to reach the US Open round of 16 since Andy Roddick in 2002, and took a set off of then world No.1 Novak Djokovic when he got there.
His coach says it was a year full of positive reinforcement, the results validating more than a decade of crafting a game that didn’t just survive on the circuit, but thrived.
“I would say probably the biggest thing we can take is the ability to play at this level,” Gilbert recalled, when asked about the biggest lessons learned in 2021. “You are always wondering when you are moving up the ranks: ‘Can I do it, do I believe?’ Jenson used to come to this tournament when he was a kid, right? So it’s almost mentally being able to believe you are good enough to do it. To say ‘Okay, I can play with these guys.’”
The mission for Brooksby, who faces Robert Carballes Baena in first-round action at Indian Wells on Thursday, is clear moving forward: keep grinding, and keep looking for ways to improve a game that is already way ahead of schedule.
“He felt comfortable playing with anybody,” Gilbert says of Brooksby’s first full year on tour. “He had wins, he had losses, and he never felt like he just couldn’t hang. He felt like at times he made mistakes, and we messed this up or we messed that up and we could have won this one, or could have lost this one. That was exciting and fun for both of us because now we look at it like ‘We’re in it. Let’s keep learning, let’s keep getting better.’”
One thing that Davenport, Higueras and Gilbert all believe is that Brooksby is on the cusp of something bigger and better. They all have faith that the American, who enters the 2022 BNP Paribas Open at a career-high ranking of 43, has plenty of room to improve.
“I think the fight of Brooksby is really going to set him apart from a lot of players,” says Davenport. “You always like to see a player who knows how to win at every level, will do whatever it takes to win matches, and his arsenal of shots is just phenomenal—then you see there’s room for improvement…”
Gilbert takes a moment to reflect on his charge’s long journey to the top-50—no guarantee for any player, given the depth of the tour and all the obstacles that lie in the path of today’s aspiring ATP stars, before contemplating the duo’s next big move.
“He’s really excited and fired up right now to keep learning,” he says. “So that makes my job easier. Before, through the juniors and getting up the rankings, it’s a grind, to plug away every day, because the mountain is still really far away. So now when you get on this stage, it’s where he wants to be. Now it’s just figuring out how to get better from here.”