You can’t miss Dustin Brown, but you can, apparently, mistake him. As he made his way to practice court No4 at lunchtime, a little boy lifted up a tennis ball for him to sign, and his mum, momentarily confused, said: “Thank you, Gaël.” When someone nearby pointed out her mistake, she was mortified: “I’m so sorry, Dan.”
Brown responded with one of his wide smiles, and in doing so won over yet another fan. “I’ve just offended him twice, and he’s been very gracious,” she giggled, as he wandered away, his red headphones clamped to his ears. “I like him even more now.”
Further along, a couple of young men eagerly discussed the technicalities of how the 30-year-old had managed to beat Rafa Nadal. Ten minutes earlier, the crowd hadn’t been speaking at all: watching Roger Federer hit, you might have thought Friday’s one-minute silence had lasted a half-hour. Then Brown arrived – someone who inspires effervescence, rather than a reverential hush. From the moment he released his magnificent dreadlocks from his cap, and tied them back with a piece of red string, he had everyone’s attention. Even poor James Ward, walking past the queue of onlookers, went unnoticed.
It was only a gentle practice for Saturday’s match against Viktor Troicki and he didn’t need to run far, not with those long, lean arms and legs that stretched across the court to thwart Nadal. He kept most of his trick shots under wraps – he later claimed that he is not working on anything new – but his clever hands couldn’t keep themselves quiet, spinning his racket on his wrist in between exchanges.
Brown’s entourage is a fluid affair – Scott Wittenberg flew out to coach him after qualifying, and he enlists the ad hoc help of an ATP tour analyst, Craig O’Shannessy. “It’s loose and casual but that works, it fits,” says O’Shannessy, who suggests that if Brown had a full-time coach “it would probably last about three months”. There’s also Brown’s agent, Scott Norton. “They’ve known each other for a long period of time so there’s a lot of trust, a lot of positive energy,” says O’Shannessy. “When Dustin looks up to the box and sees Scott doing this” – he pumps his chest – “he grows another six feet.”
A couple of friends from home were watching Brown practise and confirmed there had indeed been a small celebration on Thursday night in the house that they are renting near Southfields. “We only had one drink!” they cried, but still, that drink was champagne. Brown’s practice partner, meanwhile, looked too young to drink. He turned out to be a junior who met him two years ago at the Mönchengladbach sports club in Germany.
Being a black youth in north Germany had its problems for Brown growing up. “The village next to my town was infamous for being a Nazi stronghold,” he said earlier this week. “We were three or four coloured kids around and sometimes the other ones showed up with knives after school.”
But it made him neither hard nor angry. “He’s so chilled,” said his young hitting partner, Tim Sandkaulen. “Two days ago he gave me his Centre Court tickets. This morning I texted him and said congrats, and he said ‘thanks’ and ‘you want to hit today?’” What’s the hardest thing about facing him? “His drop shots. You cannot see it when he plays it. There is no one like him. That’s why he’s so dangerous for all the players because you don’t know what’s coming.”
After the practice, there was time for a few words with Brown himself. He talked about the tattoo of his dad (it took eight hours, he listened to music to deal with the pain), and his hair (last cut in August 1996). He did not talk about his British grandmother – “I am pretty sure she does still live here but there’s no direct contact” – or his campervan experiences (“that’s a very old story”).
But he did admit it had taken him a while to get to sleep after the adventures of Thursday evening. “I ended up getting to dinner, it was already 11pm, so it took a bit of time to wind down.” His extremely glamorous-looking girlfriend, Dione Gonzales, has been rooting for him from Las Vegas on Twitter – would she be coming to watch him? “We’re not sure yet. We’re still waiting. Going to see how I play tomorrow and then we’ll decide.”
Financial concerns have limited more than his entourage – they have had an impact on his rise up the rankings. “He can’t go to the tournaments he wants to,” says O’Shannessy. “And he’s playing a game style that naturally takes more time to develop. That makes it a slower burn for him.”
Brown is relaxed. “I guess it just takes a long time for everything to fall in place,” he says. “And maybe three, four, five or six years ago, I wasn’t ready for it. Who knows, for whatever reason? The things that are happening now, I just try to enjoy it as much as I can.”
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