Brooksby, the last American singles player left in the tournament, certainly looked like a worldbeater for a set and a half on Monday night. In his first appearance in Arthur Ashe Stadium, he played with intelligence and resilience to take a 6-1 lead on world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Brooksby then got back on serve in the second set after breaking Djokovic in an eight-deuce game that felt more like chess than tennis. But Djokovic, chasing the Grand Slam, has been playing best-of-five set tennis for nearly 20 years. Brooksby is just starting out and could not keep pace, losing 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
“I told him at the net he has a bright future ahead of him,” Djokovic said.
Opelka, Tiafoe and Brooksby are not alone. Sebastian Korda is 21 and Brandon Nakashima is 20, and both also have had success this season with Korda reaching the quarterfinals of the Miami Open after beating three seeded players and then winning his first tour title in Parma, Italy. Nakashima made the singles finals in Atlanta and Los Cabos, Mexico, and upset John Isner, the most successful American man of the last decade, in the first round of this year’s U.S. Open.
All this might not have been worth celebrating 25 years ago, but it counts as good news now.
“I do think we’re moving in the right direction,” said Stine, who has coached privately and with the United States Tennis Association. “Ideally for U.S. tennis we want to have as many guys as we possibly can inside the top 250, which means we’re flooding the qualifying rounds of the Slams. And then from there, we need as many in the top 100 as we can get. It’s a numbers game, ultimately. You could ask, would you rather have 14 in the top 100 with none in the top 20? Or only six in the top 100 and all in the top 20? I think you’d obviously go with the six, but I do think we’re making progress.”
They are a diverse group with varied game styles. Consider just the three American men to reach the round of 16. Opelka, who should break into the top 20 on Monday after the Open, is nearly seven feet tall with a big-bang game that can make him a nightmare to face. Tiafoe, who lost in four sets to Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada on Sunday night, is a compact power server from College Park, Md., with quickness and dynamic groundstrokes who has had a resurgent season under his new coach Wayne Ferreira.
Brooksby, the newest arrival at this level, is a northern Californian who made good use of his wild card into the Open.
“I think Brooksby is our best,” said Opelka, who picked Brooksby and Korda as the most likely Americans to win a Grand Slam title down the road.
Brooksby has an unconventional game based on consistency, great defense and abrupt rhythm shifts rather than the power baseline style that predominates on the men’s tour.