Novak Djokovic keeps Grand Slam hopes alive with win over Jenson Brooksby

By Brian Mahoney
Associated Press
Novak Djokovic serves against Jenson Brooksby during the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Monday in New York.

New York — For half an hour and a full set at the start, then one particularly compelling and competitive game later, Novak Djokovic’s opponent in the U.S. Open’s fourth round, Jenson Brooksby, gave him fits and created a raucous atmosphere under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

That let Djokovic, above all, and everyone else, too, know that Brooksby – a 20-year-old wild-card entry from California who is ranked 99th and never before had been on this sort of stage – belonged. And then, not surprisingly, Djokovic showed why he is who he is and how he’s managed to move within three victories of the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis in 52 years.

Novak Djokovic reacts after beating Jenson Brooksby during the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Monday in New York.

Settling in and sending messages, to the fans with roars and to Brooksby with some staredowns, No. 1 Djokovic improved to 25-0 in majors this year by winning 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 on Monday night. He extended his pursuit of a true Slam and a record-breaking 21st major championship while also eliminating the last American singles player in the tournament.

It is the first time in the history of an event that dates to the 1880s that no man or woman from the host country reached the quarterfinals.

One key to the turnaround by Djokovic, as good a returner as there is: He broke in Brooksby’s initial service game in each of the last three sets.

Perhaps affected by the physical nature of the extended exchanges, Brooksby was visited by a trainer after the second set and again after the third. Still, for someone who never had set foot on Ashe’s blue court until about two hours before the match, when he got a chance to practice there, Brooksby never seemed overwhelmed by the setting or the circumstances.

His 6-foot-4 strides and reach, his anticipation, his variety including a well-disguised two-handed backhand slice, his think-steps-ahead point construction, his commitment to patterns drawn up by his coach at home in Sacramento since age 7, Joe Gilbert – all left Djokovic a tad discombobulated early.

In the first set, Brooksby made one unforced error, Djokovic 11. And Brooksby won 14 of the points that lasted five strokes or more, Djokovic four.

When Djokovic netted an overhead to move Brooksby two points from the set, most of the spectators in the 23,000-plus-capacity arena – excited to be back after last year’s ban on audiences amid the pandemic – rose, clapping and screaming.

When Djokovic missed a return to cede that set to his foe, Brooksby waved both arms and heard more loud support.

But Djokovic quickly heard his own cheers. He broke to go up 2-0 in the second set and punched the air and shouted. At 3-1 arrived an epic game: six break points, nice deuces, 24 points in all, spread out over nearly 20 minutes. Djokovic pushed the ball into the net to end that game and make it 3-2, prompting Brooksby to hop and jump and windmill his arm and cry, “Let’s go!”

And then, quick as can be, Djokovic regrouped. With Brooksby gasping for air, Djokovic broke right back and, soon enough, the outcome was clear.

Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia, next meets No. 6 Matteo Berrettini of Italy in a rematch of the Wimbledon final,

The other quarterfinals on the men’s side: No. 4 Alexander Zverev of Germany vs. Lloyd Harris of South Africa, No. 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada vs. 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, and No. 2 Daniil Medevev of Russia vs. qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands.

And the women’s round-of-eight matchups: No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus vs. No. 8 Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic, No. 5 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine vs. 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez of Canada, No. 11 Belinda Bencic of Switzerland vs. 18-year-old Emma Raducanu of Britain, and No. 4 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic against 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu of Canada or No. 17 Maria Sakkari of Greece

Brooksby’s exit – certainly no shame in losing to Djokovic, of course – followed the fourth-round departures earlier Monday by No. 22 seed Reilly Opelka from the men’s draw with a 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 loss to Harris, and by unseeded Shelby Rogers from the women’s draw with a 6-2, 6-1 loss to Raducanu.

Rogers upset Ash Barty, a two-time major champion who is ranked No. 1, in the third round, but was unable to produce the same level of tennis in what she termed a “pretty embarrassing” performance Monday.

The bracket began with a tournament-leading 21 U.S. men in the field – the 14 Americans in the top 100 of the ATP rankings are more than any other country – and 13 entrants reached the second round, the most since there were 15 in 1994.

“We’ve got a huge group of guys there,” Opelka said. “We just don’t have the world-beaters.”

There were 22 American women in the field, also the most of any nation. But four withdrew before play began because of injury or illness: 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, 2020 Australian Open champ and French Open runner-up Sofia Kenin and 2021 Australian Open runner-up and 2020 U.S. Open semifinalist Jennifer Brady.

Olympic champs reach quarterfinals

Alexander Zverev and Belinda Bencic want a trophy in their hands to go with the gold medals they had around their necks.

The Tokyo Olympics tennis champions both moved into the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open on Monday, getting a step closer to their first Grand Slam titles.

Belinda Bencic celebrates her win over Iga Swiatek during the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Monday in New York.

Zverev beat Jannik Sinner 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (7) for his 15th straight victory. The No. 4 seed from Germany started that run in Japan, carried it through a title in Cincinnati and then kept right on going at the U.S. Open, where he was the runner-up to Dominic Thiem last year.

“I’m happy where I am, I’m happy with how things are, and I’m happy with how things were the last few months,” Zverev said. “I’m in the quarterfinals now, and from here on, the matches will definitely not get easier.”

Zverev said his gold medal is with him in New York. The 24-year-old, who has been accused by a former girlfriend of domestic abuse, joked in his on-court interview that he cuddles with the medal when he’s in bed because he doesn’t have a girlfriend.

He said keeping the medal with him is a way to remind himself of his success over the last month. He pointed to the confidence he’s gained from it as a reason he pulled out a couple of close games late in the second set, then came from behind to take the tiebreaker.

“I think that’s maybe the last few months for me, right there,” he said.

Bencic also had her best result in a major at the U.S. Open, reaching the semifinals in 2019 in her last appearance. The 24-year-old from Switzerland is a victory away from getting back there after beating 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek 7-6 (12), 6-3.

The 11th-seeded Bencic pulled out the lengthy first-set tiebreaker, then took the second set in 43 minutes – only about 20 more than the tiebreaker lasted.

“The set was so even, so I think in the tiebreak it’s always a little bit about luck,” Bencic said.

But luck doesn’t explain her results in New York, where she has reached the last eight in three of her six appearances. She was a quarterfinalist in 2014 in her debut.

Bencic will play Britain’s Emma Raducanu, 18, who joined fellow teenager Leylah Fernandez in the women’s quarterfinals by beating American Shelby Rogers 6-2, 6-1.

Raducanu reached the fourth round and Wimbledon and has now gone a step further at the year’s last Grand Slam tournament. She is the third qualifier in the professional era, which began in 1968, to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals, joining Barbara Gerken in 1981 and Kaia Kanepi in 2017.

“Belinda is a great player who’s in great form, so I know I’m going to have to bring it on Wednesday,” Raducanu said.

Rogers beat No. 1 Ash Barty in the third round and jumped to a 2-0 lead Monday before Raducanu reeled off the next 11 games.

Zverev’s winning streak includes a victory over Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at the Olympics. He hit 17 aces Monday and will play South African Lloyd Harris, who eliminated No. 22-seeded American Reilly Opelka 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-1, 6-3.

“Winning Olympics, winning Cincinnati, and now here he’s playing well, so I think he’s serving well,” Sinner said.

The top-ranked Djokovic was in action later Monday against 20-year-old American Jenson Brooksby in the same stage where he was eliminated at last year’s U.S. Open.

It was in the fourth round that Djokovic was defaulted for accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a tennis ball after dropping a game in his match against Pablo Carreño Busta.