Rafael Nadal was knocked out of Wimbledon in the first week for the third time in four years, bamboozled by the wild but often brilliant game of the qualifier Dustin Brown, a man who spent three years living in a camper van as he travelled Europe trying to earn a living. The German hit numerous drop shots, some unbelievable returns and generally kept the 10th seed off balance and out of kilter, clinching a 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Remarkably, it was Nadal’s fourth straight Wimbledon loss to an opponent ranked outside the top 100 and, after losing his hold on the French Open title last month, he must now find a way to pick himself up on the North American hard courts later this summer.
“I’m happy I got to play him on that court win or lose,” said Brown. “All the kids that play tennis dream about being able to play on that Centre Court. Playing against him there is special. Also being able to put that performance together, it was definitely very difficult and I’m very happy that I held it together for the whole match.”
It was not quite the shock it would have been a few years ago – Nadal lost in the second round in 2012 and the first round a year later, and also lost to Brown on grass in Halle last year. But it was still a surprise for the man who has won 14 grand slams and picked up the title here in 2008 and 2010 to lose to a someone ranked 102, who had lost in the first round in each of his past five grand slam events. But the 30-year-old Brown has a playing style all of his own and for once he put it together on the biggest stage to record the best win of his career, slamming 58 winners in the process.
Born in Germany but raised in Jamaica before switching his nationality back to that of his native land in 2010, the dreadlocked, athletic Brown has the kind of unorthodox game that can infuriate many a better player, causing them to lose rhythm.
Nadal wore a forlorn expression on his face for much of the match, never able to relax as Brown came forward at every opportunity. Slicing forehands and hitting drop shots at will, he looked to be enjoying the whole experience, which cannot be said for Nadal.
Still, the Spaniard had his chances. An early break gave him a 2-1 lead in the first but some poor serving gave Brown the break back for 3-3. Nadal’s serve looked vulnerable and when he offered Brown a set point at 5-6, he was almost knocked over by a blistering backhand return and the set was gone. As in the first, Nadal broke for 2-1 in the second set and this time he held on, breaking for a second time to level the match.
It seemed unlikely that Brown would be able to maintain his standard of play but that is what Nadal thought when Lukas Rosol beat him in round two in 2012. As then, so Brown continued to attack and after a double fault from the Spaniard, another brilliant drop volley gave Brown a 4-3 lead, which he maintained to take the third set.
Nadal’s mental resilience has never been in doubt – after all, he had won the title in Stuttgart on grass the week after losing his French Open crown, having lost to Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals. But against such a big server and free hitter as Brown, he knew that one mistake could be fatal. It came in the opening game of the fourth set when, having saved one break point with a good serve, he missed two bread-and-butter forehands to hand Brown the break.
Nadal’s last hope was that Brown’s nerve would fail him but, though he blew a chance for a double break, missing a break point in the fifth game, he continued to press. The only time Brown’s nerve failed him was when, at 5-3 and 15-40 on the Nadal serve he held two match points, but let a pass go that he could have made, only to see it land smack on the baseline.
Nadal then saved the second match point and held serve to force Brown to serve it out. Suddenly the comeback seemed a possibility but Brown served brilliantly, sealing it with an ace for a remarkable victory.
His reward is a clash with Viktor Troicki of Serbia, a four-set winner over Britain’s Aljaz Bedene. Nadal had been a possible last-eight opponent for Andy Murray but if Brown continues to play like this, then it is not beyond the realms of possibility he could make it there himself.