Brooksby Downs Opelka In All-American Showdown

Jenson Brooksby (photo: European Open)

ANTWERP/WASHINGTON, October 19, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Jenson Brooksby gave another standout performance, showing great maturity and intelligence, throughout his 6-4, 6-4 first-round victory over Reilly Opelka at the ATP 250 European Open in Antwerp, Belgium Tuesday afternoon.

In a one-hour and 13-minute Center Court match inside Lotto Arena between two top-ranked American men, the No. 9 American Brooksby, who came through two rounds of qualifying over the weekend, powered his way past the the giant American No. 1 Opelka on his first match-point opportunity.

The 6-foot-4-inch Brooksby, dwarfed by his taller opponent, Opelka, hit an overhead winner that capped a nine-shot rally and gave him his 13th main-draw victory this season.

“It’s been a great year. I feel like I’ve been focused and playing well, and hopefully will finish the year strong,” the 20-year-old Brooksby said during an on-court interview after his victory. In August, he was a semifinalist at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., and followed it by reaching the round of 16 at the US Open before losing to World No. 1 Novak Djokovic.  He was focused against Opelka and it showed. “I had a good game plan – I’ve been hitting him pretty well – and executed pretty well. I’m happy with that today,” he said.

Brooksby won the 37-minute opening set 6-4 on his fourth set-point opportunity, showing the quality and consistency in his game that he’s displayed all year as one of the rising #NextGenATP stars on tour, who is in the chase to secure a berth in next month’s NextGen ATP Finals in Milan. He began the week in fifth place in the ATP Race To Milan.

The Carmichael, Calif. resident placed 75 percent of his first serves in play and won 81 percent of his first-serve points. (He would finish at 73 percent for his first serves and won 84 percent of his first-serve points.) He broke his 23-year-old opponent’s serve in the fourth game with a pinpoint forehand down-the-line return off a solid first-serve that eluded the outstretched Opelka and made it stand up. Brooksby anticipated big moments well and, after staying so far back to receive the gentle American giant’s serves – allowing just six aces in the opening set – kept his composure throughout.

Then, Brooksby broke at love for a 2-1 lead early in the second set after Opelka miffed a playable backhand return at net. With Brooksby’s confidence on the rise, he promptly consolidated the break at 15 for a 3-1 advantage, then increased the lead to 4-2 with his third ace. By this time, it didn’t matter that Opelka had finally started scoring some aces – he finished the match with 12 – because Brooksby maintained his control and continued to build upon his own confidence while making the the 6-foot-11-inch Opelka run all over the court. Brooksby, facing love-30, set up game point by winning an 18-point rally and held for 5-3. He still had not faced a break point – and wouldn’t.

Now, with Opelka’s back up against the wall, serving to stay in the match – down a set and a break – he held at 15, but still faced a huge uphill climb while running out of time. With the match on Brooksby’s racquet, he promptly closed out the victory on his first match-point opportunity.

Brooksby’s ability to handle and return Opelka’s potent first serves while confidently hitting all of his own shots made believers out of the Lotto Arena crowd – and certainly Opelka, too. During the second set, the big-serving Opelka could be overheard saying that Brooksby was the “best player I’ve played in my whole life.”

Hyperbole or not, Brooksby complimented the big-serving Opelka afterward, saying, “He’s definitely got one of the best serves on Tour.” Indeed, Opelka placed 70 percent (38 of 54) of his first serves in play and won 74 percent (28 of 38) of his first-serve points. However, it wasn’t enough to win.

When Brooksby was asked what he tries to focus on while returning Opelka’s serve, he smiled and said: “Basically, just whatever my coach tells me to do before the match. That’s all I try to have on my mind out there. Some days, I’m better focused that others, but I feel like I’m getting better and I’m glad it showed.”

In the second round, Brooksby will play No. 62 Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands, who advanced with a first-round victory Monday against No. 75 Alexei Popyrin of Australia. Bottom line for the young American Brooksby is this: Scoring big wins like he did against Opelka on Tuesday is good for the confidence, good for the fighting spirit.

“I think it’s definitely confidence, through [playing] a lot of matches. I’m playing a lot of matches for the first time,” Brooksby said. “Early in the year, I wasn’t nearly as confident, I hadn’t played a lot of matches. As the [season] has progressed, I’ve only gotten better, I think on the match court.”

Murray beats Tiafoe in three-hour, 45-minute classic

Great Britain’s Andy Murray won a three-hour and 45-minute first-round classic over Frances Tiafoe of the United States, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (7), 7-6 (8), Tuesday evening to advance to the second round against No. 2 seed Diego Schwartzman.

It was the longest best-of-3 set match this season and broke the mark of 3:38 set by Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas during the Barcelona final last spring.

“I think that’s the first time in my career I’ve played a 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 [match],” said the tired-but-proud 172nd-ranked Murray during his on-court interview. “I don’t think I’ve ever played a match like that. I think it’s the longest three-set match I’ve played by quite a distance. I’m tired right now, obviously it was an unbelievable battle.”

Murray finished with 21 aces, saved seven of 10 break points, and outpointed Tiafoe by a single point, 134-133. He saved two match points by the 48th-ranked Tiafoe and won on his second match-point after hitting a backhand drop shot that the Maryland native, nine years Murray’s junior, wasn’t able to successfully return.

“Nowadays obviously my body is old now. I’ve played a lot of matches on the Tour. I don’t mind playing long matches, but that was taking it to another level,” the 34-year-old Murray added. “Brilliant match, amazing atmosphere, thanks to everyone who came and supported. It’s just so nice to be back and playing in front of crowds again.”

Rinderknech enjoying a career-best season

Sixty-fifth-ranked Arthur Rinderknech of France is enjoying a career-best season in which he has won 15 ATP Tour tour-level matches and 50 matches overall in all competitions, splitting his time between the ATP Tour and the lower-rung Challenger Tour. He’s made the third-biggest jump in the Top 100 FedEx ATP Rankings from last year, climbing 113 places from No. 178 to a career-high of No. 65.

Earlier this season, Rinderknech (15-13 on the ATP Tour) made a semifinal run on clay at Kitzbuhel and has appeared in four other quarterfinals. He also won a Challenger title on an indoor hard court in Istanbul in January. Last year, the Frenchman went 22-12 on the ATP Challenger Tour and won two titles (Rennes, Calgary). This year, he cracked the Top 100 on July 19 and has been showing steady improvement since. He has a couple of Top 20 wins, against Jannik Sinner and Roberto Bautista Agut, the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds at the European Open.

Rinderknech, 26, a native of Gassin, France along the French Riviera, comes from a tennis family. His mother, Virginia Paquet, peaked at No. 208 in the WTA; his father Pascal was a Top 50 player in France, and his cousin, Benjamin Balleret, reached a career-high of No. 204 on the ATP Tour. A former Top 10 junior in France, Rinderknech honed his tennis skills for four years at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where he majored in Business and earned All-American honors three times on the court before turning professional after graduation.

On Monday, Rinderknech won 85 percent (29 of 34) of his first-serve points against Argentina’s 40th-ranked Federico Delbonis and won 6-4, 6-4 to advance to the second round against No. 8 seed Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, ranked 33rd.

“I am really pleased with the win,” Rinderknech said afterward. “There were some crazy points here and there, and sometimes they didn’t go my way. These kinds of points can change the match but I really tried to stay focused and I am pleased I was able to close out the match.”

Around the European Open

There were nine singles matches and one doubles match on Tuesday’s order of play to complete the first round inside Lotto Arena. Among the highlights:

• No. 6 seed Alex de Minaur of Australia, last year’s runner-up to France’s Ugo Humbert and a two-time winner this season in Antalya and Eastbourne, met his match in 79th-ranked American qualifier Brandon Nakashima. The Australian No. 1 fell in the opening round to Nakashima, 6-4, 6-0. The 20-year-old from San Diego, Calif., outpointed de Minaur 67-49 to advance against 99th-ranked qualifier Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland. Laaksonen defeated No. 47 Benoit Paire of France, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3.

Laaksonen hit eight aces, won 80 percent (36 of 45) of his first-serve points and saved five of six break points – including two late in the third set – against Paire. He outpointed the Frenchman 87-68 during their 90-minute Center Court match.

“I was able to improve my game throughout the match. I’m very happy to get the win,” Laaksonen said during an on-court interview. He came to Antwerp after winning the 16eme Open d’Orleans Challenger title in Orleans, France last month, beating Dennis Novak of Austria, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2, in the title match.

“I have been improving my game with each match,” Laaksonen said. “If I look at the last five or six months, I have been been getting really good results. Every match [and win] is going to boost your confidence.”

• No. 7 seed Lloyd Harris of South Africa defeated 186th-ranked wild card Zizou Bergs of Belgium, 7-6 (4), 6-3, in an hour and 26 minutes. Harris struck nine aces en route to his 28th victory of the season. Bergs, the winner of three Challenger Tour titles this year, was playing in just his fifth ATP Tour main-draw match.

• No. 39 Marton Fucsovics of Hungary advanced with a 7-6 (4), 6-2 win over 114th-ranked qualifier Dennis Novak of Austria,  outpointing his opponent 78-59. Next, Fucsovics will play No. 4 seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain.

• No. 44 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain, advanced with a 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 72 Jordan Thompson of Australia, winning 82 percent (23 of 28) of his second-serve points and breaking Thompson’s serve four times. Next, Davidovich Fokina will play No. 3 seed Cristian Garin of Chile.

• No. 50 Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany served 12 aces and held off No. 45 Albert Ramos-Vinolas of Spain, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, to move into the second round against Harris.

• No. 69 Lorenzo Musetti won an all-Italian matchup against No. 67 Gianluca Mager, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3), to advance against top seed and World No. 16 Jannik Sinner, also of Italy.

• Doubles No. 2 seeds Nicolas Mahut and Fabrice Martin, both of France, defeated Belgian wild cards Ruben Bemelmans and Kimmer Coppejans, 6-3, 6-2, to advance to the quarterfinal round.

Tuesday’s European Open results

Wednesday’s European Open order of play

“Quotable …”

“It’s still a little bit different, but trying to get used to it. It’s going better every match.”

Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands, during an on-court interview following his 6-4, 3-6, 6-9 first-round win over Alexei Popyrin Monday night. The 26-year-old, who enjoyed a quarterfinal run in the US Open and recently qualified for his first main draw at Indian Wells, will face Jenson Brooksby in the second round.