Oh-so-close to completing a straight-set upset of No. 2 seed Casper Ruud at the Australian Open, Jenson Brooksby frittered away three match points, sat down at a changeover and began yelling at himself.
“How?! How?! God!!”
His face was flush, his emotions unhidden, his game unraveling. Soon enough, that set slipped away, as Ruud’s confidence seemed to surge and Brooksby’s collapse momentarily continued. And then, in a blink, Brooksby was back in charge, taking command immediately in the fourth set along the way to a 6-3, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2 victory over Ruud and a spot in a surprisingly American-filled third round at Melbourne Park.
“I was getting a little more frustrated out there that I didn’t close it out, and my mentality was changing a little bit,” said the 39th-ranked Brooksby, who sipped from little jars of pickle juice in the fourth set at Rod Laver Arena. “Those are the situations you have to handle sometimes in matches, and you’re going to face. I think the biggest question is: How do you respond? I just told myself to reset.”
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So leave it to a pair of 20-something Californians to rid the men’s bracket of its two highest seeded players: Brooksby, 22, delivered his unexpected triumph at the same stage and in the same stadium that Mackenzie McDonald, 27, defeated No. 1 seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal a day earlier. That makes this the first Grand Slam tournament since the 2002 Australian Open that the Nos. 1-2 seeds lost before the end of the second round — and the first time since the 1994 French Open that a pair of Americans took out the top two men's seeds at any Grand Slam tournament.
Nadal owns a men’s-record 22 Grand Slam titles. Ruud was the runner-up at the French Open to Nadal last June and at the U.S. Open to Carlos Alcaraz last September.
Like Ruud, Ons Jabeur reached the finals of two Grand Slam tournaments in 2002. Like Ruud, she came to Australia as the No. 2 seed. And like Ruud, she was bounced in the second round, beaten 6-1, 5-7, 6-1 by 2019 French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova in a match that ended at about 1 a.m. on Friday.
That was actually rather mundane compared to what Andy Murray and Thanasi Kokkinakis went through, starting the fifth set of their match at about 3 a.m.
The exits of Nadal and Ruud make nine-time champion Novak Djokovic — who dealt with a persistent heckler and a left hamstring that he says worries him during a four-set victory over 191st-ranked qualifier Enzo Couacaud on Thursday night — even more of a title favorite in his return to Australia after being deported a year ago because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.
Also a big deal: The progress of U.S. men through the year's first major championship. None has won a Grand Slam title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open.
By reaching the third round, Brooksby joined countrymen Michael Mmoh, Ben Shelton, Tommy Paul and J.J. Wolf, who also won Thursday, along with McDonald, No. 16 Frances Tiafoe and No. 29 Sebastian Korda, who all won Wednesday. The highest-seeded American man, though, could not make it that far: No. 8 Taylor Fritz bowed out with a 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-2 loss to 113th-ranked Australian wild-card entry Alexei Popyrin.
Still, the eight men from the United States remaining are the most into the third round in Australia since the same number did it in 1996.
Mmoh, who lost in qualifying but got into the main draw when another player withdrew, made it this far at a major tournament for the first time by defeating No. 12 Alexander Zverev 6-7 (1), 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.
“Life is crazy. Right when you think everything is looking dim, everything is looking dark, there's light at the end of the tunnel,” the 107th-ranked Mmoh said. “My week is proof of that.”
Shelton, the NCAA champion from the University of Florida participating in just his second Slam, beat qualifier Nicolas Jarry of Chile 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3), 7-5; Paul came back to edge No. 30 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain 6-2, 2-6, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-4; and Wolf breezed past No. 23 Diego Schwartzman of Argentina 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.
Brooksby now plays Paul; Mmoh takes on Wolf.
“Frances is probably my best friend. I grew up with Tommy," Mmoh said. “I’ve known these guys for so long. I’ve competed with them.”
There was also a big win for an American woman Thursday: 21-year-old qualifier Katie Volynets defeated No. 9-seeded Veronika Kudermetova of Russia 6-4, 2-6, 6-2.
Elsewhere, No. 4 Caroline Garcia beat 2021 U.S. Open finalist Leylah Fernandez 7-6 (5), 7-5, No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka improved her 2023 record to 6-0 by topping Shelby Rogers 6-3, 6-1 after trailing 3-1 early, and No. 19 Ekaterina Alexandrova defeated Taylor Townsend 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.
“I literally have the chills, because the fans here are just incredible,” said Volynets, who reached the third round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. “I’ve never played in a stadium this packed and with that many people keeping the energy up for me. It was awesome.”
Brooksby was supposed to enter the Australian Open a year ago but came down with COVID-19 the day before he was supposed to fly overseas.
“Hopefully this is the first of many many good years here to come,” Brooksby said.
His unusual playing style, including his two-handed backhand volleys, and ability to track down opponent’s shots, were trouble for Ruud, who took a medical timeout after the second set because of a bothersome abdominal muscle.
“He was annoyingly good today,” said Ruud, a 24-year-old Norwegian coached by his father, a former pro player.
The biggest problem for Brooksby was closing this one out. He held a trio of match points while trying to serve for the victory at 5-3 in the third set but could not cash any of them in.
Ruud raced through the end of that set, but Brooksby righted himself in the fourth, jumping out to a 3-0 lead. Brooksby finished things off 1 hour, 15 minutes after his first chance.
When the match ended, Brooksby said, “The first thing that popped to my mind was I was just proud of my mental resolve just to stay focused out there.”