MATCH POINT: Brooksby shuts the door vs. Millman

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Short balls, second serves, dinks: These are the types of shots that most players will approach the net on. But overheads? It takes a special kind of talent, and a special kind of mentality, to take an opponent’s smash, short-hop it back, and follow it to net—all when you’re break point down.

But that’s the kind of talent and mentality that 20-year-old Jenson Brooksby is showing at the Citi Open this week. The Sacramento, Calif. native is ranked No. 130 and making his debut at a 500-level event. But on Friday he followed up straight-set wins over Frances Tiafoe and Felix Auger-Aliassime with a 6-1, 6-2 victory over John Millman to reach the semifinals. Perhaps equally impressive, Brooksby's game earned him a tweet of respect from Andy Murray, who complimented his “high tennis IQ” and said he’s “the sort of player I love to watch.” Coming in, the Citi Open was all about Rafael Nadal making his first trip to Washington, D.C. Now it’s all about Jenson Brooksby making the semis.

Brooksby’s run is a surprise, but he hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere, either. Three years ago he beat Brandon Nakashima for the USTA 18-and-under title in Kalamazoo, and two years ago he beat Tomas Berdych in the first round at the US Open. In 2021, he has won three Challenger titles and reached the final in Newport.

“I have definitely gotten mentally tougher this year, and it’s only kept improving,” Brooksby said this week. “I just really love, truly love playing on these stages. No opponent will faze me. I can compete with anyone.”

As Murray said, Brooksby is a tennis-lover’s dream. He’s a wiry, long-limbed 6’4, and he plays with a controlled but determined aggression. He seems to know just when to push the attack and when to lay back and rally. He has short backswings that look unorthodox at first; he kind of snaps at his backhand. Tiafoe said that pretty much everything Brooksby does is strange, but the longer you watch, the more his game makes sense.

His quick swing and good hands allow him to counter-punch hard-hit shots, take the ball on the rise, return serve aggressively, and change directions with both of his ground strokes. He also has a natural transition game, and can follow just about any ball forward. At the net, Brooksby has shown more creativity. Against Millman, he flipped a highly-unorthodox two-handed half-volley into the corner to win one point, and then hit an even more unusual two-handed drop volley to win another. When Millman took control of the rallies, Brooksby deftly defused his attack with high defensive lobs.

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Brooksby is the lowest-ranked player into the semifinals of Washington, D.C. since 2007 (John Isner, then No. 416).

Brooksby is the lowest-ranked player into the semifinals of Washington, D.C. since 2007 (John Isner, then No. 416).

“I’m very confident going in with my level and my mental state,” Brooksby said before his win over Millman, and it showed. There’s a sense of purpose to all of his movements between points. In his three matches in D.C., he has been the lower-ranked player each time, yet he’s the one who has had the air of the aggressor, the guy who is making things happen. If there was one youthful flaw to Brooksby’s performance against Millman, it was his insistence on changing directions with the ball and hitting it over the high part of the net even when he was well ahead in the second set. He made a few unnecessary errors that way, and might have been better served letting Millman, who was off from the start, continue to implode.

But it didn’t matter in the end, and if a young player is going to err, it should be on the proactive side. After all, Brooksby isn’t just turning heads with his wins right now, he’s turning them with the creativity and intelligence of his game. I look forward, with Andy Murray and many others, to seeing what he does with it next.