Nole Wins, Brooksby Shines

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Bill Simons

New York

“It’s the most scary thing you can hear in tennis,” said Chris McKendry. “You’re playing Djokovic on Ashe Stadium.”

Exactly. Nole has won 20 Slams. Sacramento’s Jenson Brooksby had never been past the second round. Djokovic has won 85 tournaments. Brooksby has won zero. Nole is No. 1, Jenson is No. 99. John McEnroe seemed to capture the moment: “It’s like sending an impala out on the savanna with the lions.”

Djokovic has won a record $152 million. Brooksby’s just starting, He’s pocketed $430,835. But we hope he has a financial advisor. The guy (who just won an additional $265,000) is going to cash in for sure.

Brooksby has been an under-the-radar ATP sleeper like few others. His game isn’t big, but his grit is massive. His rise has been stunning. This kid, who started the year outside the top 300, reached the finals of the Hall of Fame Open and the semis in Washington. He’s been piling up stunning wins this summer over the likes of Aslan Karetsev, Kevin Anderson, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz. He likes to compete, he loves the stage – and he’s steely.

Yes, Oakland’s Don Budge won the Grand Slam in 1938, Brad Gilbert had a stellar career and Mackie McDonald and CiCi Bellis have had moments in the spotlight. But arguably, Brooksby’s electric adventure on Ashe had the potential to be the biggest night in Northern California tennis history.

When Jenson walked out on court, he glanced high up to the top of the massive stadium. But if he was awestruck, there was no sign of it. Confidence is one of his greatest assets. “I 100% believe I can win against anyone,” he told the media. Joseph Gilbert, his coach since he was seven, told Inside Tennis, “This was a match-up we wanted, to see what we want to work on.” He advised Brooksby, “Showcase your skills, play your best tennis and let’s see where the chips fall.”

Jenson emerged from the starting gate with belief and fire, as if announcing, “I belong.” His game said, “Okay, Novak, I know you’re going for history, but I’ve something to say.”

No, Brooksby didn’t hit a jaw-dropping around-the-post winner, as he had the other night, but he unleashed his baffling brew of strokes: backhands down the line, severe slices, devilish drop shots, opportunistic dashes to the net. He takes pace off the ball, then blasts. When Novak countered, Brooksby didn’t blink. The Serbian was stunned and on his heels. He had no rhythm. In New York, a new star was emerging.

After five minutes Brooksby held serve and made an impression. “He’s got top ten written all over him,” gushed John McEnroe. Then Jenson broke Nole. The Serb seemed to ask, “Who is this guy, anyway?” Brooksby was almost flawless off the ground. His first serve rarely missed, while Novak’s forehand faltered. The crowd roared and Brad Gilbert noted, “His movement and defending abilities are off the chart…He has the rare skill to make you play poorly by the variety of his shots and speed.” In just 29 minutes the kid raced to an astonishing first-set 6-1 blowout.

But don’t you dare think that JT, as Jenson is known, was going to derail destiny. Seven times this year players have grabbed the first set off of Novak, only to falter. Tonight Nole shot death-ray glances at his foe. The message was clear: “That’s nice, buddy, but I’m Djokovic, the GOAT. Don’t you forget that I’ve won 24 straight Slam matches.”

He promptly hit a winner off a let chord in the second set and howled in delight. He started to hit out as the match came down to the critical fifth game. Time and again Brooksby had break points. Time and again Novak served big. The battle of wills rose to a fever pitch.

Finally, on his sixth break point, Brooksby prevailed to break Nole, ending an epic 19-minute game that got the set back on serve. Jenson offered a fierce fist pump. We dared to imagine that the 20-year-old could stay with the legend.

Brooksby had hit out with his knockout punch. He won a battle, but would soon lose the war. Nole called on his match-tested savvy and punished a Brooksby drop shot to break right back, to go up 4-2.

After all, no one manages a match more adeptly than Djokovic, and no one knows how to take a punch like the Serb. Novak said, “I was just trying to find a rhythm, trying to read his game, trying to understand where I can find holes in his game and start to attack and shift the momentum to my side.”

Andy Roddick said, “Novak takes your legs. Then he takes your soul.” The air came out of Brooksby’s balloon. His thigh began to hurt, the pain went down his leg and his movement became impaired. It had been nice while it lasted.

Coach Gilbert was blunt. “Jenson just got tired. He’s played a lot. This is just his third Slam. He had just played a five-set match and he hasn’t played many five-set matches. Novak just started feeling it, but he was more comfortable being tired. He’s been there so many times. The way he holds himself, how he breathes. He started going for bigger serves, his mph’s went up. He was tired, but he attacked faster.”

Brooksby, who would suffer a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 loss, told the media afterward that there’s nothing like playing on Ashe at night.

For his part, coach Gilbert said he would tell his man that he’d had a great week, “There’s so much to learn from. I’m proud of him for the effort. Tomorrow we’ll see the sights of New York and then get back to work to get him more physical, to get more pop on his serve, to learn how to manage the energy of the match better, and, if we ever get to play Novak again, to understand his patterns better.”

Gilbert added that he’s not surprised that Brooksby is where he’s at, he’s just surprised he’s gotten there so fast. “What I’m really proud of is that when he’s had an opportunity, like when he got a wildcard in Washington DC, he’s seized it.”

American tennis fans are craving a new men’s champion. But Gilbert is wise – he has perspective. “I don’t want to put any limitations on Jenson. That’s been the fun part about this run. People keep saying he can do this and he can do that. But he and I don’t want to know what we can be. We just want to keep going, keep improving and then find out what we can be.”

For twenty-nine dazzling minutes, a fearless 20-year-old dashed and bashed and flashed brilliance. A great champion reeled, a set was won. Yes, the quiet kid receded on this New York night. But there was little sorrow. Novak Djokovic might now go on to make history, but the California kid, Jenson Brooksby, might just someday write a little history of his own.



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