Jenson 1 (3)

When it comes to the history of tennis sponsorships, one story stands above the rest. At Wimbledon in 1977, a young Nike executive named Phil Knight happened upon a wild-haired, florid-faced, full-throated 18-year-old named John McEnroe, ranting his way to victory on a side court. Over the next two weeks, as he watched the teenager come out of qualifying to reach the semifinals, Knight thought this rebel in all-whites was the perfect fit for the maverick running-shoe company he was trying to turn into a multi-sport brand. Knight signed Johnny Mac up soon after, and the rest is sports-merchandising history.

For now, Jenson Brooksby and Julius Langkilde, CEO of Danish eyewear firm Christopher Cloos, can only hope that their partnership is half as successful for both parties as Knight’s and McEnroe’s was. But they’re off to a similar start. Last month, Langkilde was in the stands at the US Open as the 20-year-old Brooksby took on—and took a set from—Novak Djokovic, in what turned out to be one of the matches of the tournament. This week Christopher Cloos made Brooksby its second “athlete brand ambassador”—the other is Tom Brady.

Langkilde liked Brooksby’s “challenger” attitude on court, and Brooksby liked the company’s environmentally-friendly product. He’ll wear its logo on his clothing, and design a line of sunglasses and blue-light glasses.

“My dad has pairs of Cloos glasses,” Brooksby said in an interview earlier this week. “It’s great to have my family involved and loving it, too.”

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You Should Know: Jon Wertheim on Jenson Brooksby

Family and tennis have always gone together for the Sacramento native. His mother and father, Tania and Glenn, are longtime recreational players, and the teaching pro they took lessons from, Joseph Gilbert, became the coach who has helped mastermind Jenson’s career since he was 7.

“I think he liked my energy and competitiveness,” Brooksby said when he was asked what Gilbert saw him at a young age. “I think he knew that you have to have those qualities if you want to keep playing for a long time and go far in tennis.”

Brooksby and Gilbert have come a long way from Sacramento in the last 13 years. After a stint at Baylor, Brooksby made his pro-tour breakthrough this summer. In July, he reached the final on grass in Newport; in August, he made the semifinals on hard courts in Washington, D.C.; and in September, he reached the fourth round at the US Open, before falling to Djokovic in four sets, in an electric night match. Those results pushed his ranking from No. 152 to No. 79.

Now, with the cheers from Ashe Stadium still ringing in his ears, Brooksby says he’s ready to build on that progress when he returns to the tour at Indian Wells.

“There’s nothing more exciting than having that atmosphere in Ashe, against someone like Djokovic,” Brooksby says. “100 percent that feeling motivates me to get back there, to those types of moments.”

Before strained glutes contributed to a four-set defeat at the US Open, Brooksby severely tested Djokovic, winning the first set 6-1.

Before strained glutes contributed to a four-set defeat at the US Open, Brooksby severely tested Djokovic, winning the first set 6-1.

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Along with the inspiration, Brooksby also learned what he needs to shore up to compete with the ATP’s elite. While he was able to match Djokovic stroke for stroke and rally for rally for an hour and a half, Brooksby couldn’t stay with him over the last two sets. A lean 6’4” and 183 pounds, he knows the next step is to build the strength and stamina he’ll need to last through the long matches and long seasons that constitute life on the pro tour today.

“I took a couple of days off to rest my body,” Brooksby says of his post-Open activity. “Since then I’ve been working on my physicality, bringing more of that to the court. I’m ready to get out and compete again.”

It wasn’t just Brooksby’s results that impressed and encouraged U.S. tennis fans. His thoughtful style of play also made him something of a folk hero among those who prize variety in the game.

Brooksby doesn’t win with power or aggression. He doesn’t hit the same two ground strokes over and over. He doesn’t hit his first serve 120 m.p.h.; many of them, in fact, float in around the 100 m.p.h. mark. Instead, Brooksby wins by changing speeds and spins; by not trying to hit shots that aren’t there; by putting the ball where his opponent doesn’t like it to be; by finding ways to move forward and close out points at the net; by running every ball down and never beating himself. Watching him play in D.C. in August, Andy Murray spoke for a lot of fans when he tweeted: “Jenson Brooksby is the sort of player I love to watch…lots of variety…high tennis IQ…great in defense.”

“It’s not about power for me, or hitting harder,” Brooksby says. “It’s more about learning to hit each shot, getting the little details right, and executing what we work on in practice every day.”

Except for a few stray USTA camps, Brooksby has worked almost exclusively with Gilbert. Together they’ve developed a seemingly unique approach to the game.

“Our mindset is different,” Brooksby says, “Joe keeps it simple, and we really try to learn as much as we can from every match. It’s about hitting the right shot at the right time.”

I think he liked my energy and competitiveness. I think he knew that you have to have those qualities if you want to keep playing for a long time and go far in tennis. Jenson Brooksby on his coach, Joseph Gilbert

“Hitting the right shot at the right time”: You can see that philosophy in action when Brooksby plays. There seems to be a thought behind every swing, and each is a small part of a game plan designed for a specific opponent. Because Brooksby doesn’t rely on blazing power, his style is one that recreational players can relate to. Wherever he played at the Open this year, a college-match atmosphere formed. When he grunted out a “Come on!” after a winning point, it felt as if he was urging the whole arena on. In response, fans shouted, “Come on, JT!” using his nickname as if he were already a star. More than anything else, his passion for the sport comes through.

“I love tennis because it’s on you,” Brooksby says, “it’s all your decision-making. There’s no one you can look to for an excuse.”

According to Ola Malmqvist, head of coaching for USTA Player Development, Brooksby and his younger American cohorts have helped put a spark in their older colleagues.

“Sebi Korda, Brandon Naksahima and Brooksby are all hard workers, all professional; they bust their butts,” Malmqvist says. “People can see that, and it rubs off on everyone.”

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Brooksby will take what he learned from this summer's slate to tournaments to an autumn version of Indian Wells. Ranked No. 79, he opens against 179th-ranked Cem Ilkel.

Brooksby will take what he learned from this summer's slate to tournaments to an autumn version of Indian Wells. Ranked No. 79, he opens against 179th-ranked Cem Ilkel.

Away from the court, Brooksby doesn’t watch much tennis. “I’m not worried about what other players are doing,” he says. But he does follow college football and the NFL, and spends his free time taking trips with friends, getting out in nature as much as he can. Brooksby says he enjoys the travel that comes with the tour, the chance to see new places.

For now, he doesn’t want to set any specific goals; like his coach, he wants to keep his progress as simple and process-based as he can.

“I just want to keep executing what we practice, and learning from each match,” he says.

Whether it’s the good results, or his popularity with the home fans, or the confidence of Christopher Cloos, Brooksby has been reassured this summer that his unique game can also be a winning game.

“I know I’m on the right path,” he says. It’s one that U.S. should be happy to follow him on in future years.