LONDON – Dustin Brown loves a big stage and there is no bigger stage in tennis than Wimbledon's Centre Court. The German qualifier, ranked No. 102, stepped up to the occasion on Thursday to beat two-time champion Rafael Nadal 7–5, 3–6, 6–4, 6–4 in the second round at Wimbledon.
Brown's game, a languid combination of casual volleys and powerful groundstrokes, left the 10th-seeded Nadal flummoxed. Brown gave him no rhythm off the ground, keeping the rallies short by either going for a big flat shot deep or rushing the net. Of the 249 points the two played, 208 lasted fewer than five shots. Brown came to the net 85 times and converted for 49 points. He hit a total of 58 winners to 24 unforced errors. He won simply by taking the racket out of Nadal's hand.
"In this court especially, you meet players that don't want to play from the baseline sometimes," Nadal said. "This opponent is one of these ones. You cannot have mistakes against a player like him with that big serve. You know, nothing to lose. Serving first and second almost the same speed. Without having rhythm at all. I didn't hit three balls in a row the same way. Then when you need to hit that ball, extra ball, you don't have the confidence to do it."
Brown told the BBC after the match that he had never stepped on Centre Court before. He was given the option to tour the court before his match but opted not to. But any nerves were immediately put to rest as he held his own in the first set. Brown beat Nadal last year on the grass in Halle and he said that experience made this match feel more familiar than it otherwise might have.
"It's easy for me to play my game against someone like him because I don't have anything to lose," Brown said.
He certainly played that way. Brown has always been one of the flashiest, most entertaining players on the ATP Tour, but with his ranking so low he is normally relegated to tournament qualifying or the ATP Challenger Tour. But playing on his favorite surface with a crowd ooh-ing and ahh-ing as he showed off his deft touch at the net, Brown played inspired tennis. In a throwback to the classic grass court style, Brown serve and volleyed 99 times, converting 71 attempts. By contrast, Nadal tried the seemingly antiquated tactic just once.
Most importantly, Brown held his nerve. On his first match point he left a ball he could have volleyed away, only to see it land just inside the baseline. Nadal went on to save a second match point with an ace and Brown sat on the changeover, trying to collect his thoughts as he prepared to serve out the biggest win of his career.
"I kept saying Dustin, just try and concentrate and even if you don't get through it no one is going to say anything bad," he said. "Just get through it."
With an eye towards keeping the rallies short, Brown overcame a nervy opening double-fault to reel off the next four points, sealing it with his 13th ace of the match.
Nadal was more downbeat than usual after the loss, addressing reporters quietly as he tried to process another early loss at Wimbledon. After a stretch of five consecutive finals from 2006 to 2011 (he skipped 2009), Nadal has not made it past the Round of 16. This year he felt his preparation was perfect for a deep run.
"2012 and 2013, I know I was not ready to compete well," Nadal said. "This year I was ready to compete well, and I was playing well before that tournament. Had the right preparation, all the things I thought were going to be fine to play a good Wimbledon."
"Obviously he's one of the best players of the sport, and for me, being able to play against him twice, obviously on my favorite surface, is probably my luck," Brown said. "I wouldn't want to play him on clay or hard court because obviously it would make playing my type of tennis even more difficult. I'm happy I got to play him on that court win or lose. All the kids that play tennis dream about being able to play on that Centre Court. Playing against him there is special."
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