By Giri Nathan
This edition of Indian Wells gave the world a glimpse of the imminent power vacuum on the men’s side once the Big Three recedes to the Big One Or Just Occasionally Two. For the solipsistic American fan, a question now emerges: So are we gonna get any guys in the mix or what? If Taylor Fritz plays as lights-out as he did during stretches of last week, he might be the top American for the foreseeable future—but that level might not be so feasible. No one can deny Frances Tiafoe’s charms as an athlete and showman, but week-to-week consistency has eluded him. As for Reilly Opelka, he can be counted on to fill the servebot-shaped hole that John Isner will one day leave in the tour. Seb Korda might have the literal genes of a major champ and some promising early results, but his matches get dicey under pressure. This summer delivered us some brand-new contenders, however, in Jenson Brooksby and Brandon Nakashima, both of whom are thriving this week in Antwerp as they played through qualifying rounds to make the quarterfinals.
Brooksby brings some long-awaited funk to the American men’s game. By funk I might also mean junk. It’s early but he deserves a place alongside deviants like Daniil Medvedev and Hsieh Su-wei. Like them, he casts aside textbook technique to win weird, and often ugly, best exemplified by his trademark two-handed backhand drop shot that doesn’t reveal its true nature until it’s too late. While it is not terribly ambitious to call him “scrappy”—might as well go with “grit” and “lunchpail mentality”—there is no more apt word for Brooksby’s defense, which compensates for topline speed with incredible hands and gnat-like persistence. Brooksby left Baylor after an injured season to go pro, and must be grateful for that, after this spring and summer catapulted him from outside the top 300 to his current rank of No. 70. In Newport, he played his first tour-level event on grass and made it all the way to the final. The next month he’d go on a startling semifinal run in Washington, D.C., taking down Felix-Auger Aliassime along the way. And then there was the US Open run, where he advanced to the fourth round and delivered an inconceivable breadstick to Novak Djokovic before losing the next three sets. He proved, within his first few months at the ATP level, that he was on par with its very best. Indeed, since August, he’s only lost matches to Jannik Sinner, Nikoloz Basiliashvili (last weekend’s runner-up at Indian Wells), Sascha Zverev, and Djokovic. This week, as a qualifier in Antwerp, he had Reilly Opelka in fits. “How the fuck did Novak win a game against this guy in the first set [at the US Open]?” mused a fuming Opelka during a 6–4, 6–4 loss. There’s much more for Brooksby to gain on his serve, which is abominable for someone at 6 foot 4, but that should be fixable.
Just a few spots behind him in the rankings, at No. 79, is his fellow Californian, Brandon Nakashima, who excelled for a semester at UVA before going pro. While his game lacks the glaring idiosyncrasies of Brooksby, he returns and moves well, and forces the issue on the baseline with a punishing and reliable backhand. (Both these players kill the old pattern of American men who serve-and-forehand their way through whole pro careers.) Nakashima started 2021 by winning his second Challenger title, then quickly snuck up the main tour, making two finals in Los Cabos and Atlanta. He’s already chewed up veterans like Dan Evans, Fabio Fognini, and, most notably, John Isner in the first round of the US Open. This week in Antwerp he swept aside the speedy Alex De Minaur 6–4, 6–0. Like Brooksby, he could benefit from some free points, and the lack of such a weapon makes it hard to envision a top 10 trajectory, but for the time being, they’re 20-year-olds with the energy and appetite to grind point after point, with plenty of unrealized potential lying in the weight room and off-season skill work. And as the old hegemony of the men’s tour falls away, there’s not much keeping them from the kinds of titles they’ve both drawn tantalizingly close to winning.
Above: Jenson Brooksby junking it up. (Getty)