Thursday, June 27, 2013

‘A hacker with a big serve’

That’s what I once called Dustin Brown. The date was September 2010; the match, against Andy Murray; and the occasion, the 2010 US Open. At the time, Dustin was in the middle of failed attempts to get himself adopted by England after he fell out with Jamaica.

Three months later, in December 2010, I made the following joking prediction: “After learning of Kiefer’s retirement, Dustin Brown will give up his bid to be adopted by Britain and will instead offer himself to Germany, reminding them that he was actually born there. The Germans will have a good belly laugh.”

Turns out I was both wrong and right. Brown is now listed as German on his official records. Yet he has never played Davis Cup for that country. Indeed, do any random search for German tennis players and his name rarely comes up. This is because for most of his tennis career, Brown was listed as Jamaican, living for years in a camper purchased by his parents, and supporting himself on the challenger circuit.

 Brown’s struggles give a nice perspective into the differences between those players who have made it, and the bottom-feeders surviving off the scraps. Indeed, one of the reasons why I have always adored Federer was his insistence that any change in the rules of tennis be ones that also benefitted the guys struggling down below, not just selfishly safeguarding the gains of the ones at the top.

So when I hear Johnny Mac doing his annual whining about the shortness of the grass season and why it’s unfair that so many of the top players are tumbling, I tell him (through my TV) to shut the hell up because there is balance in the tennis world when a qualifier like Michelle Larcher de Brito can stun the likes of Sharapova, while a dread-locked rastaman frustrates the poop out of Hewitt. This to me is the beauty of grass.

After watching Brown beat Hewitt yesterday, I found myself thinking that unlike Peng Shuai whom I recently described as a ‘defensive opportunist’, Brown’s game may best be characterized as ‘aggressive opportunism’. Both styles of play depend on trickery, but while Peng reacts to the moment, Brown often tries to create it. Back in 2010, I also compared Brown’s game among others to Sergey Stakhovsky, the man who would beat Federer. Here’s what I said:

“… these men engaged in a cat-and-mouse type of game that I have not seen the likes of since cocaine sent Martina Hingis out of tennis. It was all angles and spins, touch and drop shots, wrong-footing and sneaky forays into court, placement and finesse. Sure there were the big serves. But once the ball was in play, it was like I watching…versions of Martina Hingis. Because at her best, Martina Hingis could also play like a hack, throwing up junk balls to put her opponents off their game. It’s amazing what good hacking can do.”

Yes, Dustin Brown still plays like a hacker. But on a good day, an aggressive hacker with a big serve can beat anyone, especially on grass. There’s something about this surface that brings out their talent. Maybe it’s the unpredictability of the bounce that they can capitalize on. While others fall and cry out in pain and frustration, hackers rise to the occasion, chopping and hacking their way almost to the finish line.

I say ‘almost’ because true hackers never win the tournament itself, do they? Nor would we really want them to. You need more than hackery (hackdom? hackitude?) to win Wimbledon. But along the way, they sure can chop down some good players caught sleeping or off guard.

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