Is This the Dawning of the Age of Brooksby?

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Indian Wells

His navy clothes and shoes are dark, but Jenson Brooksby’s future is bright. He’s got something intangible, something wonderful: a tennis IQ that’s off the charts, a fighting will that even Rafa would applaud and an “it” factor that’s as appealing as it is difficult to describe. 

The pride of Sacramento is different. 

But tonight Brooksby at first seemed adrift. The more experienced and poised Stefanos Tsitsipas, the No. 5 seed, imposed his will on him. Jim Courier said Tsitsipas’ backhand “kicks like a mule.” But young Brooksby is a stubborn 21-year-old who loves to compete. Sure, tonight in the first set he got drubbed by the French Open finalist 6-1.

Yet Brooksby didn’t blink. He rarely does. In Acapulco two weeks ago, it took Alexander Zverev until nearly 5:00 in the morning to down Brooksby (who BTW plays the piano in his spare time).

Tonight he played Tsitsipas as if he were playing Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto – quiet, then explosive and powerful, with its own unique beauty.

Sure, he’ll hit a 16 mph winner. Sure, just eight or nine years ago the kid was a wide-eyed teen getting autographs from Petra Kvitova, Vasek Pospisil and Ernsts Gulbis. And, yes, he hits two-handed slices like a WTA player. But he somehow befuddles his foes. Jenson commented, “I think my super power would be exploiting weaknesses in other people. Also doing my best to have my own game have no flaws – the two things we shoot for in my game.” 

Jenson made Tsitsipas look flat, off-key – almost clunky. Brooksby’s glide, his uncanny defense, his touch and imagination got into his foe’s head. Tsitsipas muffed overheads, netted dropshots, let shots go, and fell down for no apparent reason.

But Brooksby, who doesn’t back down, is rising. Last year he was outside the top 250. Now, with his second-round 6-3, 6-0 win over No. 25 seed Karen Kachenov and tonight’s come-from-behind 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Stefanos, he’ll at least reach No. 38.

But Tsitsipas was not impressed. “Was there anything that surprised you in Jenson’s game tonight?” asked the press conference moderator. “The amount of net cords he hit,” replied the Greek sullenly. “I think that’s an incredible skill. I don’t know. I really don’t know. “

“What makes him tricky to play?” asked a reporter. “I don’t think there’s something that makes him tricky to play.” “What makes him difficult to play?” “Putting balls back.”

Tsistsipas then complained about his new shoes and a broken shoelace.

I asked, “In terms of Jenson’s ability to get the ball back, is it his anticipation, his speed, his ability to turn defense into offense?” Stefanos replied, “He’s not a very explosive player…He’s not the most athletic player…He’s just able to read the game well, play with his pace, play with the opponent’s pace…and stay consistent…There’s nothing that he has that kills.”

Others had different takes. John McEnroe told Inside Tennis, “I love his fight and variety.” Jim Courier said, “He’s fizzing like Alka Seltzer. Tsitsipas looks like a bottle of Coke that’s been open for four days…If you bought stock in Brooksby and [Seb] Korda it would be a nice piece of your portfolio.”

Reilly Opelka said Brooksy is the best American man right now: “He plays with a counter-punching analytical style. He puppetizes his opponents.”

Brooksby admitted he’d had a tough start.  “I was frustrated and tense…but I was able to turn a good switch around between the first and second sets…It means a lot to do it in my home state…It’s such a great court – great atmosphere. One of the best.”

Jenson, who missed the Aussie Open because he had COVID, clearly has grown. A boy is becoming a man. Yet somehow he doesn’t fully impress. “I think I’m definitely underestimated,” he said. “Among fans, they just look for the flashy things like the technique, the athleticism…I don’t think anything really stands out [with me]…I’m showing I can do it my way…I’m establishing myself now at this level with the process we’re on…Mine is a different way. There’s no doubt it’s showing now consistently…I definitely proved I belong at this stage.” 

Jenson, who gained the first top-ten win of his career, added, “It always feels nice to keep reaching new milestones, new goals. It’s special. I definitely have an appreciation for it…There’s no doubt I wasn’t intimidated…I believe I’ve shown I can beat anyone. I just have that focus every match and try to learn from everyone I’ve played…A lot of players/coaches maybe don’t see how I could be at as good a level as I am. That’s what we shoot for in our games and strategy, to not be too easily figured out. That’s how the top players over history have been.”

Now it will be interesting to see if the piano-playing Californian will make history. Could this be the dawning of the age of Brooksby?

Photo by Getty Images

MONFILS WIN LIFTS NOLE BACK TO NO. 1: Here’s a newsflash. These days have been rough for Novak Djokovic. History escaped him when he lost the US Open final to Daniil Medvedev. His Australian Open misadventure ended in pain. He lost fairly early in Dubai, upset by Jiri Vesely of the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. His sponsors may be fleeing, and he isn’t allowed into America for Indian Wells and Miami.

But no worries – Gael Monfils gave Nole a big gift when he beat Daniil Medvedev 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. Novak will now be No. 1. Serbia will rejoice – others in the sport may not be grieving. In this time of grief, perhaps there’s a little cosmic justice that a Russian, no matter how intriguing, is not the leading player in tennis.

Today we noticed again that no other big man has ever played defense like 6’ 6” Daniil. Not surprisingly, the Tennis Channel suggested, “There should be a new rule: You get two points every time you get a point off of Medvedev because of his defense…He’s standing back on his returns somewhere near the Mexican-California border…He can touch the moon.”

When it comes to entertainment and likability, few exceed the lanky, 6’ 4” Monfils. Today he blasted his forehands from the corners, he dashed to dropshots, his leaping overhead brought Sampras to mind, and he entertained with curious gestures and spontaneity.

Who else would successfully hit an underarm serve on set point, or wipe off the court with a towel after his foe smashed his racket into little pieces?

Monfils, who’s been on tour for 18 years, was the former world No. 1 junior and reached No. 6. He was soaring pre-COVID. But then, when tennis was played without fans, he faltered. 

Today, though, it was Medvedev who faltered. He confided it “doesn’t feel amazing” in the heavy air of Indian Wells and Dubai. He made many un-Medvedevian errors. After losing the first set, Monfils scored a key second set and then pounded the Russian’s forehand. He moved brilliantly. His forehand was on fire. 

Monfils’ victory was his first over a No. 1 in 13 years, and his first over a top 10 player in three years. He’ll next play the sensational young Spaniard, Carlos Alcaraz.

THE GOSPEL OF DANIIL MEDVEDEV – BRIEF GLORY’S BETTER THAN NO GLORY: While reflecting on his brief three-week tenure as No. 1 in the world, Daniil Medvedev asked, “Is it better to be No. 1 for, let’s say, one week in your life, or never touch it? I think it’s still better to at least touch it.”

YOU KNOW RAFA’S ON COURT WHEN: The traffic has ground to a halt at every approach to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the autograph hunters are out in spades and the second biggest stadium in the world is packed. Today he beat the feisty Brit, Daniel Evans. Wednesday he’ll play America’s top player, Reilly Opelka, who beat Denis Shapovalov today.

WILL’S KING RICHARD PORTRAYAL WINS AGAIN: Will Smith, who plays Richard Williams in the movie “King Richard,” is winning more awards than the Williamses have been winning tourneys. He’d already won awards from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, the NAACP and the British Academy of Film and Television. Sunday he took home the Best Actor honor at the Critics Choice Awards, one of the last major film and television award shows before the Oscars.

Smith told Venus, Serena and their sister, Isha Price, “Thank you for entrusting me with your story. What you…and your family were able to do inspired…everyone around the world. You all define the American dream.”

The Hollywood Reporter noted that Smith said playing a real life character has an extra burden, “because when I play someone, everyone is going to assume that that’s the real story and that’s how it was. There’s an awful couple of weeks when the movie’s finished and you know the family is going to start to see it. There’s an emotional release when people feel honored when you tell a true story.” 

AMERICAN BREAKTHROUGH: For the first time since 1994, seven American men at Indian Wells made the third round: Taylor Fritz, John Isner, Reilly Opeka, Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe, Jenson Brooksby and Steve Johnson. The seven who made the third round in 1994 were champion Pete Sampras, Todd Martin, Pat McEnroe, Michael Chang, Aaron Krickstein, Mal Washington and Jonathon Stark. Madison Keys is the sole American woman remaining. Shelby Rogers lost to Leylah Fernandez in a third-round night match.

DOUBLES TAKES: Four top-10 players and twelve top-20 players have entered the doubles draw in pursuit of a title that’s been won by the likes of Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Rafa Nadal, Andy Roddick, the Bryan Brothers, Jack Sock and John Isner. Sock and Isner saved seven break points en route to beating Aussie Open champs Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis. They’ll next play Stefanos Tsitsipas and Feliciano Lopez. Taylor Fritz and Tommy Paul beat the former world No. 1 doubles team of Robert Farah and Juan Sebastian Cabal.

VICTORIA AZARENKA ON THE CORE FOUNDATION OF HUMANITY: Last October’s BNP Paribas Open finalist Victoria Azarenka lost today, but her comments on Ukraine drew praise. She said, “One thing that’s missing in this world is compassion…and empathy. That’s something I feel I can offer to people. I hope other people start to implement something like that, because we’re all human beings. The most important thing is to take care and help each other. That’s what life is about…The core foundation of humanity shouldn’t be lost in any conflict. I think the violence is never justified. I hope compassion – empathy – is something that we can grow more to avoid conflicts.”

COURTSIDE TOSS-UPS: After his win over Dan Evans today, Rafa Nadal blasted a few tennis balls high into the stands. Then, from the far side of the court, he hit a ball softly and precisely to his longtime Coachella Valley host and Oracle founder Larry Ellison. But the 77-year-old billionaire, who owns the BNP Paribas Open, bobbled the ball. That wasn’t nearly as bad as an incident years ago at the US Open: after Pete Sampras won the tourney he gently tossed his racket to Nike founder Phil Knight, who was sitting in the front row. But instead it hit a lawyer from Greenwich, Connecticut, who promptly filed a lawsuit (which ultimately failed). 

TSITSIPAS THOUGHT OF QUITTING: Stefanos Tsitsipas said that last fall, due to intense pain in his right elbow, he was in a very bad place, and “no longer enjoyed the game I loved…I wasn’t able to stay motivated because I didn’t believe in myself…My body was stopping me from going there, so it was very sad to feel hopeless. I felt weak and unable to reach new heights.” A few days before his surgery he was thinking of quitting. His doctor told him he should plan on coming back for the 2022 clay season, but unexpectedly he reached the semis of the Aussie Open. “It was kind of a miracle in a way.” Stefanos admitted. “Going deep in the Australian Open [where he reached the semifinals] was the best thing that happened in my career, in terms of a comeback.”

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