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Tennis

Jenson Brooksby Is Making American Tennis Strange

Jenson Brooksby reacts in his match against Taylor Fritz at the U.S. Open.
Image via YouTube

It did not seem like America, the land of serve-and-forehand men’s tennis automatons, was capable of producing the kind of funk that Jenson Brooksby is now serving on a nightly basis. The 20-year-old Sacramento native was a top high school recruit when he headed to Baylor, where he spent his freshman season injured before opting to go pro. He started 2021 with pretty much no footprint in pro tennis, only to spend the year climbing up and winning at every tier of it: ITF, Challenger, and now the ATP tour. In the span of seven months Brooksby has ascended from beating the world No. 459 in Villena, Spain to making the third round of the U.S. Open as a wild card, which he accomplished on Thursday night by upsetting Taylor Fritz, 6-7(9), 7-6(12), 7-5, 6-2.

It’s as hard to figure out what made Brooksby the way he is as it is to suss out why any of it works. Does he have super-clean technique? Nothing that would ever make it into a textbook. Is his serve dominant? Nope. Is he fast? Not really, but he’s still at every ball. Does he build his game around a punishing forehand like every other American man to play tennis? No, it’s a limp-looking thing. What he does bring is lovely touch, an unnerving sense of which shot will most frustrate or confuse his opponent, and a pesky way of overstaying his welcome in long rallies. Take it from a much sharper tennis mind, who probably watched along as Brooksby surged this summer, making a final on Newport (in his first-ever pro tournament on grass) and a semifinal in D.C., beating world No. 15 Felix Auger-Aliassime along the way:

There is one shot that pretty much explains Brooksby’s whole deal: a remarkably janky two-handed backhand slice, which has all the appearances of a normal backhand drive until he suddenly tilts the racket face back before contact. Even the most “disguised” slice will let one hand fall away as the racket starts moving; his stays stubbornly and goofily two-handed the whole way through, no matter if he’s taking it short for a drop shot or floating it way back to the baseline. To pay it the highest compliment, this shot would fit neatly into the Hsieh Su-wei arsenal. Like Hsieh and Daniil Medvedev, Brooksby is another disciple of the school of Winning Weird, and just like those two, he is an an extremely compelling watch, a mystifying fusion of awkwardness and grace. Viewers got four hours and six minutes of that blend in his defeat of his countryman Fritz, after which the 23-year-old loser inefficiently snapped his racket over his knee.

Brooksby was asked last month about his unusual shot selection. “I just try to move the ball and just see where [my opponent is] located at the time,” he said, according to Tennis.com. “And then just try to make them move.” Thank you, Jenson.