No one all year has figured out how to beat Novak Djokovic in a Grand Slam match. Now it’s Jenson Brooksby’s turn to try — and the way he, and his coach since age 7, went about things ahead of time were as original as the 20-year-old Californian’s playing style.
Brooksby, who began this season ranked outside the top 300 and is now a career-best 99th, is a wild-card entry at this surprise-filled U.S. Open. He’s scheduled to take on No. 1 Djokovic on Monday for a quarterfinal berth.
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“I believe I have the game, definitely, to go all the way. I didn’t doubt that in my own mind. I didn’t put any expectations like reach a second week or anything. I don’t really think like that,” said Brooksby, whose on-court approach is all about spins and angles, highlighted by an unusual two-handed backhand slice. “I do have the confidence in myself that I can go really far in whatever tournament I play. Obviously the next one’s another big match, but just try to prepare the same as all the others.”
So how to go about getting ready for a Week 2 debut at a Slam in a 23,000-capacity arena against one of the greats? A long day of practice and detailed game-planning?
Brooksby’s coach, Joe Gilbert, decided to rest Sunday and stay away from the courts completely. And, as is usually the case, they will not discuss tactics until right before Brooksby walks out of the locker room to face Djokovic.
“This is all brand new,” Gilbert said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But I feel like, because I’ve been with him so long, knowing what he needs to be good, to be ready for the match, is pretty easy. … In his world, (under-18 national) finals when he was 17 was huge. This is a much bigger feeling, but it’s similar: ‘Hey, this is new. I have emotions, feelings.’ All that kind of stuff.”
They connected when Gilbert gave tennis lessons to Brooksby’s parents. Gilbert, whose JMG Tennis Academy in Sacramento develops juniors, says he saw little Jenson hitting a ball off a wall, was impressed by his focus, and asked against whom he was “playing” in his head; the answer: Rafael Nadal.
Thus began a relationship that is as much about mentoring as it is coaching.
It was a match involving 20-time major champion Nadal that Brooksby watched “from the nosebleeds” at the 2019 U.S. Open, according to his advisor, Amrit Narasimhan — the only time Brooksby has been inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Brooksby spent the start of the year nearly unbeatable on the lower-level ATP Challenger Tour. Now he faces Djokovic, who already owns 20 major championships and is 24-0 at the sport’s most important tournaments in 2021.
Djokovic is four wins away from the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since Rod Laver in 1969.
“If you read (his) resume before you go play him you’re going to lose,” Gilbert said with a laugh. “Of course you’re going to.”
Brooksby’s resume includes beating 2010 Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych after qualifying for the U.S. Open two years ago, and a surge this season that features three Challenger trophies, the final of an ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and the semifinals of an ATP 500 event in Washington.
“I’m curious to see his match with Djokovic,” said Reilly Opelka, an American who is seeded 22nd and meets South Africa’s Lloyd Harris on Monday. “I think he can give Djokovic a lot of fits because he’s just tricky.”
Unlike players, such as Opelka, who win with a formula that begins with a big serve and a big forehand, Brooksby relies on a more subtle approach and a deft touch.
It’s all he’s ever known, essentially, because Gilbert developed that approach from the very start.
“He’s not playing with power. He’s not playing with serve-plus-one. He’s not creating a huge weapon. A lot of what we talk about is patterns; where we think we have the advantage,” Gilbert said. “I look at the other guy and I go, ‘This is where I think the holes are. This is the best way to get to those holes.’ His job is to go execute it.”
Gilbert likened it to a basketball coach seeking — and aiming to exploit — favorable matchups against another team.
Once Gilbert discovers those areas, he keeps them to himself until five or 10 minutes before Brooksby competes.
“It’s best to do it that way so he doesn’t over-analyze it,” Gilbert said. “It’s the last thing he hears and it’s fresh in his head.”
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After beating No. 21 seed Aslan Karatsev in five sets Saturday night, Brooksby was asked: “What goes through your mind when you think about Novak Djokovic’s career and the way he plays?”
The response was: “Um, I don’t know much, honestly. I don’t really watch much or think about that too much.”
That, Gilbert said, made him smile as he thought, “But I do.”