By Jack Edward
Last Tuesday, Jenson Brooksby defeated his first top-five opponent.
The victim of his incessant fist-pumps and come-on-ing?
It had definitely been on the horizon. Brooksby has played three top-five players and won a set in all three matches – breadsticking Novak in New York, doing decently against Zverev at Indian Wells last October and holding match points against the umpire abuser in Acapulco (to think… if he’d converted one of those match points, that poor umpire probably wouldn’t have gotten the fright of his life as their match dragged on until 5 in the morning).
After being defeated by Brooksby, Tsitsipas was left scratching his salty wee noggin.
“He’s not a very explosive player… but he’s able to get balls back. He’s not the most athletic player, as well. He’s just able to read the game well, play with his pace, play with the opponent’s pace. He’s able to read the game well and stay consistent. There’s nothing that he has that kills, I would say.”
Not explosive? Not the most athletic player? Nothing that kills? Brooksby’s just defeated a top-five player, has won at least three matches in six of his last ten events and is the fifth-youngest player in the top-50…
… and like Tsitsipas, you’re probably wondering how he’s finding so much success.
Brooksby revealed his secret after the match.
“I think my superpower would be exploiting weaknesses in other people.”
How Brooksby defeated Tsitsipas
Tsitsipas isn’t entirely wrong on some aspects of Jenson’s game.
But from the back of the court, I disagree with his assessment. Brooksby is able to attack on either wing – he can measure flat forehands into slowly opened up portions of the court and has an insanely versatile backhand, choosing either direction on the rise with confidence and throwing in the occasional disguised two-handed slice to keep his opponent pulling his luscious locks out.
But on serve, whoah boy is there work to do. Brooksby is… around 6’4”, supposedly the same height as Tsitsipas… Though the cover photo for this article would suggest he’s maybe a couple of inches shorter.
Either way, he’s significantly taller than the Diego Schwartzmans and Kei Nishikoris of this world yet held the fourth-lowest ace percentage of any top-50 player in 2021.
(Quick side note on this: Brooksby’s serve will definitely need to improve but he actually still won quite a few cheap points off of it despite it’s lack of explosivity – 20% of Brooksby’s serves went unreturned to Tsitsipas’s 19%… If you’re gonna get salty, at least prove your weapon is bigger than your opponents!)
The serve’s not where he has been winning matches nor was it what made the difference in this one. No, Brooksby has an innate ability to when and where to pull the trigger, of when to step into the baseline and when to hang back – as Tsitsipas said, his ability to read the game and to work with the pace of the ball.
It’s not something Tsitsipas really got to grips with, very frequently finding himself locked into a cross-court backhand battle.
I’d love the stats on Brooksby’s backhand placement because it felt like Brooksby found the width required to make Tsitsipas perpetually uncomfortable on this wing. This width meant Tsitsipas very rarely got the opportunity to hit an inside-out forehand without doing some tricky footwork and couldn’t go backhand line with as much ease as he is used to (at 4-2, 15-15, we actually heard Brooksby say “You gotta get to the backhand first” when he pulled the trigger too early on a crosscourt forehand that Tsitsipas rifled back crosscourt).
The easy width Brooksby gets on his backhand is clear from the above rally. When Tsitsipas does go line, Brooksby gets the mid-court ball he’s looking for to attack the Greek’s stronger wing.
Drag him out wide, he’ll drag you out just as wide. Hit it hard, he’ll hit it just as hard but into a better spot in the court.
The other way in which Brooksby damages his opponent is in his ability to take on the return. Brooksby steps into the court before his opponent serves, using his momentum and ability to take the ball on the rise to completely neutralise his opponent’s serves, often on the second and sometimes on the first.
Tsitsipas finished the match with his lowest percentage of first-serve points won in any match this year (as Brooksby develops, I don’t doubt we’ll see him crack the top-10 in first-serve return points won).
Attacking the forehand, taking on Stef’s serve early… Brooksby exploits weakness his opponents didn’t even know were there.
The future for Jenson
Brooksby went on to lose pretty badly to defending champ Cam Norrie.
- He was broken five times, his lack of serving ability leaving Norrie untroubled (9% of Brooksby’s serves went unreturned).
- His usual strengths had little effect on his opponent’s leftiness – the width Brooksby can get on his backhand didn’t do damage to Cam’s forehand and his flat-attacking forehand was left a little ruffled by Norrie’s even-flatter-and-steadier backhand, the lack of pace on the ball almost doing him more harm than a typical blasted pro forehand cross-court.
- He couldn’t slice down the line reliably to goad an error from Norrie’s low backhand due to having to go over the highest part of the net.
Still, even in this loss we could see the cogs whirring, Brooksby starting to work out an opponent that clearly wasn’t the best match-up for him. He switched from trying to attack from the deuce court into Norrie’s backhand to doubling down on the Brit’s forehand, looking for a ball he could go inside-in with – he found some success doing this but couldn’t maintain the level of execution required to pull it off.
I am left fascinated by how far Brooksby can go.
He is so ready and willing to change up how he’s playing to find a way to win. Surely, without something that can kill, without the explosive power of other players, the tennis IQ of the young man alone could see him in the top-20…
… within a year?
Stef – wash away that salt and give the guy a round of applause. Jenson Brooksby’s a better player than you’ve given him credit for.