Like many a 20-year-old American in Paris for the first time, tennis pro Jenson Brooksby is excited about where he is and eager to see where he’s headed.
Brooksby, who’s from Sacramento, California, has been tearing up the lower-level ATP Challenger Tour — 19-2 record; youngest U.S. player to accumulate three titles in one season on that circuit in 15 years; ranking rose from 315th in February to 163rd on Monday — and now he’s looking for more.
Not just this week, when he’s scheduled to face 20-year-old German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, who is seeded 20th, at Roland Garros in French Open qualifying Tuesday, but in the years to come. Asked where he sees himself a decade from now, Brooksby did not hesitate a bit.
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“I mean, by then, I want to be No. 1 in the world. I believe I can do it. It’s a long road. It takes a lot of, obviously, a lot of hard work, a lot of discipline getting better. But I believe I’m very motivated enough to do that,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press conducted via Zoom. “And by then, even five, 10 years, or before — I mean, I don’t want put limits on it, my goals — I definitely want to be the best player in the world.”
This is what competitiveness and confidence sound like. It’s also evidence that having had a taste, albeit a brief one, of the uppermost echelon of a sport can do for someone who is trying to make it big one day.
Qualifying for the French Open began Monday; play in the main draw starts next Sunday. Players whose rankings weren’t high enough to get direct entry into the Grand Slam bracket can earn their way in through the three rounds of qualifying — essentially a tournament before the tournament.
Every so often, someone who does work his or her way into the main event uses that momentum as a springboard for serious success.
At the 2020 French Open, for example, 20-year-old American Sebastian Korda went from qualifying to the fourth round before losing to eventual champion Rafael Nadal; 23-year-old Argentine Nadia Podoroska took that route all the way to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Iga Swiatek. At this year’s Australian Open, 27-year-old Russian Aslan Karatsev qualified and got to the semifinals before losing to — yes, that’s right — eventual champion Novak Djokovic.
Brooksby — known as “JT” to those closest to him, because his middle name is Taylor — played in only one Grand Slam tournament as a junior, the 2018 U.S. Open.
But he stood in the spotlight at age 18 in New York the following year: Brooksby won three matches in qualifying to book a spot in the main draw, then beat 2010 Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych.
There was a swirl of attention around Brooksby and conversation about whether he would, or should, opt out of playing college tennis at Baylor and declare himself a professional so he could accept the prize money at Flushing Meadows.
“The whole world told him to go pro,” Brooksby’s advisor, Amrit Narasimhan, said in a telephone inteview, “whereas I was like, ‘Buddy, you’re not ready to play pro tennis.'”
Brooskby acknowledges as much, saying, “I felt my game was ready, but not other areas. Not physically, not mentally. … Now I’m ready.”
So he chose Baylor — but then never actually played a college match, sidelined by a toe injury. In the meantime, he’s grown to 6-foot-4 and improved his strength and fitness.
The best part of his tennis game?
“The strength,” Brooksby said, “is no weaknesses.”
He’s been with the same coach since age 7, Joe Gilbert, who joked that Brooksby is “not growing a beard anytime soon” and offered a similar assessment to Narasimhan’s about their player’s on-court demeanor.
“He can’t stand losing. And he’s a very fiery competitor,” said Gilbert, who met Brooksby after giving his parents tennis lessons. “So he battles himself. Sometimes battles his opponent. He battles everything out there, because he is a bit emotional. But he loves it.”