Dustin Brown: Triumph of throwback tennis in the modern era

Rafael Nadal lost to Dustin Brown in the 2nd round at Centre Court in Wimbledon, making it the third time in four years that he could not even make it to week 2 of the slam of slams. The last time he reached the quarter finals or further is 2011, now appearing distant.

That is, the result was not particularly surprising for those who watch tennis beyond the slams and certainly those who remembered that Brown had beaten Nadal last year at Halle.  Now Halle typically plays substantially faster than Wimbledon but this year the heat seems to have helped make the conditions fast in Wimbledon.  The stage was set for an on-the-cards upset.

What, instead, was surprising was Nadal’s after-match refrain that Brown denied him any rhythm.  Brown too echoed the assessment and said his plan all along had been to deny Nadal any rhythm. Surprising because, fundamentally, Brown’s tactics were predictable and uni-dimensional, unlike modern tennis.

Modern tennis is all about variety.  Nobody serve volleys all the time most definitely.  Nobody goes first strike all the time.  Nobody takes the net all the time.  Nobody pushes all the time. It’s instead a mix of a variety of tactics that cover the whole gamut of strokes but with a baseline bias to keep the percentages in one’s favour.  What may superficially appear as monotonous and predictable baseline tennis is actually rich with variety and tactical intrigue, intended to keep the opponent guessing.  In a nutshell, you don’t want the opponent to be sure of what your next play is going to be.

Dustin Brown’s approach on the other hand harks back to a bygone era.  His strategy can be summed up in one line: take the net away from the opponent.  This is how we play doubles in clubs – take the net away before somebody gives you a short ball that you can’t get to soon enough.  So it was refreshing and tons of fun to watch Brown do something like that on Centre Court, SW19, consumed live by millions of viewers across the planet and evoked Miroslav Mecir in a way (though Brown is incredibly flamboyant and hardly feline-like).  But one would have thought top players in the ATP main draw wouldn’t take long to sort him out.

On paper, it should be easy if you know what’s coming.  What or rather who was coming in was Brown volleying behind the serve – almost every single time.  And I only say almost because I didn’t watch the full match and cannot confirm if he did choose to stay back on occasion.  But as long as I watched it, he was coming in all the time, even behind second serves. Commentators used to chide players not named Sampras for doing so….in the mid 90s.  Brown played with single minded conviction – he was coming in no matter what and would do his best to improvise a volley if not hit a meaty one.  He also took the net quickly when receiving, seemingly confident he could somehow make a shot no matter what.  Thus, in theory, Nadal ought to have known exactly what would happen every single time.  All he had to do was find a way past Brown somehow – lob him, pass him, attack his body, whatever it took.  This was the old school grass court tennis dynamic – serve volleyer versus baseline counterpuncher.  Except, circa 2015 amid the usual moaning about grass playing like green clay, the serve volleyer triumphed.  And notwithstanding the fact that it went to four sets, I would call it a rather comprehensive triumph given how much lower Brown is ranked than Nadal and how much more used to Centre Court the latter is.

That is the real significance of Dustin Brown’s victory over Nadal.  And for this reason, it must be distinguished from Nadal’s earlier losses to Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis  and Nick Kyrgios respectively in the last three Wimbledons.  Rosol and Kyrgios relied on a powerful serve to play high risk tennis and bash the ball mercilessly.  But they were not serve volleyers.  Darcis played fairly solid grass court tennis but again did not serve volley compulsively.  They just took a greater amount of risk while still essentially playing the modern game.  They had nothing to lose while Nadal had everything to lose.  Brown played serve volley and played it with a lot of conviction.  In toto, he serve volleyed 99 times and won the point on a staggering 71 occasions.  Who the bloody hell serve volleys 99 times in four sets!

However that Nadal is now clearly on the decline, it is stunning that he could not tactically figure him out.  Perhaps the sheer shock value of somebody daring to stick to this approach in today’s tennis did the trick?  Nah, you still have players sticking adamantly to serve volley like Michael Llodra or Radek Stepanek and they have not toppled top 10 players at Wimbledon, at least not in a long time. After the dust has settled over this upset and the media is through with convenient pigeon holing of this victory in socio-cultural contexts that may interest philosophers but hardly satisfy tennis fans, the analysts will probably drill the data and find out what exactly made Brown so effective with a style of tennis that, in spite of its exalted place in tennis tradition, has been all but written off as outdated.

Advertisements

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: