#NextGenATP American Jenson Brooksby has been one of the breakthrough stars of the 2021 season. The 20-year-old reached his first ATP Tour final in Newport, upset Felix Auger-Aliassime en route to the Washington semi-finals and pushed Novak Djokovic to four sets in the fourth round of the US Open.
Brooksby has enjoyed his rise under the tutelage of Joseph Gilbert, who has coached him from age seven. ATPTour.com spoke to Gilbert at the BNP Paribas Open before Brooksby’s second-round match against Alexander Zverev.
This year has been pretty special for Jenson. What do you think of the whole experience considering how long you’ve known him?
This is what Jenson dreams about. He loves it. He’s one of the few kids I’ve worked with that every time he hits a milestone, he comes back and he’s hungrier. There are a lot of kids I’ve trained where they hit something and then they relax a bit, like ‘Okay, I got to here and I [can] relax’.
With Jenson, it seems like every time he hits something he comes back and is like, ‘Alright, I’m motivated to do more’. I think that kind of explains his year a little bit. He hasn’t really gotten satisfied through the [period] of time and then I think that year of injuries [in 2020] was big. It was kind of a negative obviously because he was injured all year, but he learned to take care of his body better. We brought on some strength and conditioning coaches and then he was extremely fired up to prove himself out of the gates after being off.
It is clear that Jenson has a lot of self-belief. What do you think he has proven to himself with his results this year with all his big runs?
He’s proven that he belongs out here for sure. I think that’s one thing both of us wanted to see. He’s proven he can make a career out of this and that he can play with anybody. I feel like he kind of showed that with Djokovic a bit and showed that with Felix and showed that with some top guys he has played.
That belief and that confidence is just growing, which is great for me to see because it’s one of the hardest things to get. But it can easily be lost, too. It’s a day-in and day-out thing. You have to keep working hard.
Jenson showed in the Djokovic match early on that his level is pretty up there. What did you think of that match?
Jenson knows how much I love Djokovic. I think Djokovic, if he’s not the greatest player, he’s in those three guys. But Djokovic’s game and his style and his patterns and the way he plays I like a lot. I’ve watched it a lot, so going out there we had a game plan and what we were looking to do, but I felt like Jenson was redlining at the beginning and Djokovic was in third gear.
I knew that, so then as the match went on in the second, Djokovic put it into fourth and maybe into fifth gear in those long games in the middle of the second set when they went half an hour in like two games going at it. I think that’s where Jenson kind of redlined and then the engine exploded.
We went back and we took from that that we need to get more physical, but a lot of people didn’t really say a lot about how he just had a five-setter the match before, he had a four-setter the match before that, [another] four-setter before that. This was really his first Grand Slam that he got his teeth into. The kid has never played that many sets with this adrenaline and this energy in his life, and so he was fired up, but he was mentally exhausted. We took a couple of weeks off before this one and now I feel he is fresh and ready to go.
Who did you try to build Jenson’s game off of, or did you just take how he played as a kid and worked with that?
A little bit of everything. I have a style and strategy and a game I want to see, and I’ve only watched [Roger] Federer, [Rafael] Nadal and Djokovic for the past 20 years. They’ve been up there forever and they’re the best, so I kind of only watch the best through that period of time. I didn’t really take one of them. I tried to look at things all three of them did consistently, so it would make sense to me that this works or that works and this is what they’re doing.
But I definitely felt like Jenson wasn’t going to be like Rafa, just as far as the physicality of how he plays and he doesn’t have the ease of Federer. Djokovic with the patterns and the way he moves the ball around and the way he absorbs pace and the drop shot. It was fun for me to see him and Djokovic drop-shotting back and forth because I think one of the coaches I talked to was like, ‘There are going to be a lot of drop shots in this match because they both are handsy and feelsy’.
Definitely, for sure, that’s a look that I was looking at for many years with Jenson. People have compared him to Medvedev a little bit and Murray, but it’s definitely a hands type of player and absorbing and move the ball around.
Over the American summer, what always was evident was Jenson’s competitive spirit. Do you have any examples from off the court that just show how competitive of a guy he is?
Oh, yes. Jenson’s competitive to annoyance at times. Whether it’s ping-pong, cards, playing games or flipping a coin… before tournaments when he was younger, sometimes he was moving a little slow or getting up slowly and I would just start arguments and fights with him about college football or about something and that would get his juices flowing.
Even back home playing all the guys we have and the competitiveness growing up, Jenson was always on edge. I am, also. It kind of complements each other in a way and then at the same time it lights off fireworks. We’ve learned over 13 years to manage our time really well, where we need space and where we need intensity and when we need to focus, when we can mess around and when we need to lock in and be professional.
Now that you see how much excitement there is about how well Jenson has been doing, how do you insulate yourselves and focus on the process instead of worrying about all the other stuff?
That’s probably been the most difficult stuff so far… I think the really hard part is that [when you are] coming up, it’s all exciting. For every team in sports, it’s proving it that is really a testament. Whether it was the [NBA’s Golden State] Warriors when they first won, everybody was excited and it was great. And then for the second and third [championships] it looks a little more stressful.
You see it with Djokovic and you see it with Serena [Williams] and you see it with all of them. When they’re winning at the beginning, it’s all super exciting. Then after 10, 15 Grand Slams, it’s a lot of expectations. You win and it looks like you’re expected to and if you lose, it’s the end of the world. But that’s sports. That’s with Tom Brady, that’s with all the great tennis players and football players and athletes. It’s just sports.
You win and then it’s a what have you done lately type of attitude and you just have to deal with that. We try to block it out as much as possible and then keep the team close, keep it small, keep it to people he trusts.