Brooksby's Breakthrough: Meet The #NextGenATP Star Who Refuses To Lose
20-year-old has sights set on Milan in first year as a professional
Jenson Brooksby expects to win every match he plays. That is no exaggeration.
Whether it be in his Grand Slam debut against a former World No. 4, in front of a packed crowd at the 2019 US Open, or his first tournament after missing 14 months with a toe injury, the American refuses to be rattled by any opponent and any situation he encounters.
So, when the 20-year-old had his back against the wall in Friday's final round of Roland Garros qualifying, facing a set and a double break deficit, it was business as usual. A self-described 'physical player', Brooksby isn't afraid to show his emotions on court and takes pride in his ability to dig in the trenches and fight for every point. Nothing comes easy against the California native, even when he's staring down three match points with a spot in the Roland Garros main draw on the line.
When Brooksby completed the 6-7(5), 7-6(2), 6-4, comeback against French wild card Evan Furness to punch his ticket in Paris, it confirmed what the American had believed all along: that he is ready for the game's biggest stages. The moment was greeted with a subtle fist pump to his longtime coach Joseph Gilbert. Despite the magnitude of what had just transpired, he has his ambitions set much higher.
"I always knew I could do this, but I'm definitely proud of myself for showing the consistency so far," Brooksby told ATPTour.com. "I've played four Challenger finals already, and that was only a few tournaments in, after missing 14 months. I know I've had the level. The consistency from match-to-match is something that wasn't there a few years ago, but there's a lot of the year left so I'm hoping to keep getting better."
A historic start to the season on the ATP Challenger Tour has Brooksby firmly in contention to make his debut at the Next Gen ATP Finals in November. Up to seventh in the ATP Race To Milan, he is an integral member of the #NextGenATP American trio that also includes Sebastian Korda and Brandon Nakashima. In just his first year as a professional, one of 2021's hottest players is expecting all the success that comes his way.
"I didn't think I'd be close at the start of the year, but I saw where I'm at now and it would be cool," Brooksby said of his Milan prospects. "It looks like a fun tournament and it'd be great to play it. It would show my consistency is high and that I'm getting better and doing a lot of the right things."
To open a Challenger campaign with three titles from four finals is impressive, but to also do it to launch a professional career is unprecedented. As fearless a competitor as they come, Brooksby's physicality and mental drive have been on full display since he turned pro in January. He would soon lift his maiden trophy in Potchefstroom, South Africa, followed by back-to-back crowns on home soil in Orlando and Tallahassee. In doing so, the American became the youngest player in Challenger history to win three titles in the first four months of a season. He is up to a career-high No. 163 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Brooksby's story is a fascinating one. A former USTA junior champion, he sent shockwaves throughout the tennis world with an upset of former World No. 4 Tomas Berdych at the 2019 US Open. At the age of 18 and with no experience on the professional stage, he would earn the biggest win of his young career.
Hoping to continue developing his game at the college level, Brooksby enrolled at Baylor University later that year. But the American would suffer a significant setback as he prepared for the next step in his journey. A debilitating 'turf toe' injury would derail his college tennis ambitions. It kept Brooksby on the sidelines and prevented him from practising and training amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to step on a court for the first half of 2020, the California native says he hobbled around his home with a boot strapped to his foot. A total of 14 months would pass before the American finally returned to a match court to open the 2021 season.
"Last year was not easy for me, but it's only made me tougher and more motivated," Brooksby reflected. "At the 2019 US Open, I hurt my arm and then I had the turf toe that kept me out for a while in 2020. That was a tough injury, because it was hard for anyone to know what it really was. You'd do what the doctor says and try to go back on court and you're always readjusting. That just confirmed in my mind that while my level was ready, my body wasn't.
"Those moments made me hungry to go out there and compete. I was slowly improving physically and had a lot of motivation from those struggles. I'm always going to stay hungry and remember that."
An only child, Jenson was born to Glen and Tania Brooksby on 26 October 2000. Named after former Formula One driver Jenson Button, it was his father's passion for auto racing that led to the unique name. Glen, an anesthesiologist, used to race for fun in California and has been a longtime F1 fan.
Brooksby has speed in his DNA. One of the more vocal and energetic players on tour, the American is also an agile mover known for his unrelenting defence. That mentality of fighting for every ball has been engrained in Brooksby since he first joined forces with Gilbert at age seven. As he says, it's a reflection of the culture at the JMG Academy in Sacramento.
"I started playing when I was four," Brooksby said. "My parents both got me into tennis and they played quite a bit in the past. I remember back in the day I would hit a Nerf ball against the garage door every day before school, for like an hour. I just always loved playing tennis. I'll never forget how my mom would drive me to the academy for practice when I was younger. I couldn't have done this without my parents' support.
"I've been with the same coach since I was seven and my parents actually used to have lessons with him long before me. He only coached adults but my mom and dad asked him if he would try teaching me. He said 'yes' and here we are 13 years later. I think it's a cool story that I've been with him for so long. He knows me as a person. We have a basis of how we train and we're just constantly fine tuning things. There are no surprises, so it makes it easier. It's about learning new things as you go along and fine tuning things as you can. It's great that I've had so much consistency with him. I'm very thankful for that."
It's no wonder that Brooksby says that Rafael Nadal is his biggest inspiration. That relentless aggression is not only the culture established by Gilbert, but his philosophy modeled after the former World No. 1.
"His mentality and consistency is just so amazing for me to see," Brooksby said of Nadal. "And how he's done that for so long. I love the intensity and discipline he brings every time... I'm just trying to be more physical. Competing day-in and day-out and being physical every day on the court. That's what we focus on before anything else."
With Milan on his mind, Brooksby says he is looking forward to having Gilbert in his corner at the Allianz Cloud, if he qualifies for the innovative 21-and-under event. One of the unique aspects of the Next Gen ATP Finals is the ability for players and coaches to talk, via headset, at certain moments of matches.
"I've seen it on TV a few times and it's pretty cool. The different rules are fun too. Joseph and I always talk about how hilarious it would be if people saw us chatting on changeovers. The way we talk to each other is naturally different than usual, but it would be great to get some coaching during matches."
A deep run at Roland Garros will go a long way towards Brooksby's bid to qualify for Milan. He carries a 13-match win streak into his first main draw appearance on the terre battue. It will be the 2021 Challenger breakout star against one of the circuit's breakthrough performers from a year ago, as 24th seed Aslan Karatsev awaits in the first round.
Get To Know Jenson
Favourite hobby: I love playing piano. My parents have a piano at home and my dad played some in the past. I started when I was nine or 10 years old and I had some lessons back then. Even now, when I'm at home, I'll go for more lessons. I really enjoy it. It's just a relaxing and fun skill to have.
Superstition: Nothing crazy, but I always warm up earlier than most players for a match. So I have more time to go the locker room and go to the gym. I do that consistently.
Favourite home-cooked meal: I love how we grill salmon. My dad does it really well. I live pretty close to my parents, so I love going over there and we'll have a nice meal like that. Also, we'll have a big salad with it, with a lot of toppings like carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, and usually I'll put some cranberries in there too. I always love having that when I go home.
Three famous people to meet: Will Smith. I love his movies and he seems really cool. Jenson Button too, just to be able to meet the guy I was named after. And the third would have to be a tennis player. Rafa.
Can't travel without: My music speaker. In South Africa, we were always at the outside pool and had the music on. If we're at a hotel and it's not too busy, I like listening to music a lot. Rock is my favourite genre, but EDM and rap are solid too. I'd say my favourite band is the Arctic Monkeys.
Favourite vacation spot: Hawaii. I've been there with my family a few times and it's just a relaxing place to go on vacation. Going around the islands and enjoying life.