Tennis

At Wimby, big week for little guys

Dustin Brown
Dustin Brown may have lost Friday, but he won over the fans at Wimbledon.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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LONDON

He played way out on Court 14 Friday, with the Centre Court stadium still in view, hovering. With only three rows of stands, people were packed around the brick walls just six paces off the side of the court. People were on their toes, or kid on dad’s shoulders. Some people stood and strained from the seats from the next court over, others climbed the walls until security told them to move. Then more climbed anyway.

Dustin Brown became a cult figure at Wimbledon this week. Tall, black, Jamaican/German with sleeveless shirt, stretched skinny muscles, long dreads down his back and a jacket promoting his Twitter handle on the back: @DreddyTennis.

“I mean, why not?’’ he said. “If no one else is putting the patch on you, why not market your own product?’’

He gained 15,000 Twitter followers this week. Usually, in the minors, he said, he gains three. Not 3,000.

Three.

Maybe for the first time, this was the week of the little guy, the no-name, the underdog at Wimbledon. Well, that’s not exactly right. It was their week on the Wimbledon grounds, the outer courts. That’s where they were heroes, with the people who had the cheaper, outer-court tickets.

This isn’t just a tribute to some journeymen having the week of their lives. It’s more of a cultural thing for this place and this tournament. Be honest: With Wimbledon’s history, you would not expect a black Jamaican with long dreads to actually become the cult figure.

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But you should have seen the crowd during his match Friday. One old, white Scottish guy told me, “He looks like a wildman. I hope he wins.’’ One young black woman yelled at him, “Congratulations. You’re gorgeous.’’ Four young white men were complaining that he wasn’t doing enough with the ball. People chanted his name.

And when it was over, and he had lost, security tried to clear a path to escort him to the locker room, and kept yelling at fans to move. But people would jump in front and ask him for an autograph. He gave it, over and over. And over.

“I mean, I’m not happy that I lost,’’ he said. “On the other hand, there are people there that still came to see me. It’s not going to kill me to take a couple autographs.’’

A few years ago, the Queen was coming to visit Wimbledon, and Serena Williams openly talked about practicing her curtsy. On the big day, though, she was humiliated, as the club put Williams out on an outer court where the Queen wouldn’t even see her. Look, this is a sport with a white history, and while times are changing, Wimbledon is a club in particular that needs to be careful about appearances. Honestly, at the time, I wondered if it was more than appearances. I still do.

It’s a different group of people who watch the matches on the outer courts. You get a grounds pass and can wander around. While Brown was playing Friday, Andy Murray was on Centre Court. That’s where the rich people go, people who have had tickets for decades.

Next week will go back to being about Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic and Murray. But the first week this year has been defined by guys who usually are just known as Opponent or Other Guy.

A few are still left, but not Brown. He lost Friday in straight sets. But he symbolized the little guy more than anyone, even more than Steve Darcis and Sergiy Stakhovsky, who beat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Brown is 28 years old, and fighting it out in the minors with so many of these same guys who were successful this week. His story is so different than the tennis cliche: He has a Jamaican mom and German dad. He lived in Germany as a young boy and then moved to Jamaica.

His parents were not wealthy. And when he moved to Jamaica, he found that the tennis federation there wasn’t overly supportive of him. So he played on public courts and looked for matches with people and hoped to find tennis balls that weren’t dead.

He started winning junior tournaments anyway. And by the time he wanted to try out life as a pro, in 2004, he didn’t have the money for expenses. So he went to Europe, and his parents bought him a VW van, more like a mobile home. He lived in it and went tournament to tournament, barely winning enough for gas, food and tennis strings.

Five years of that, of wondering every night about his future, and he finally started doing well enough to ditch the van. He is now ranked No. 189, but had to play a qualifying tournament to get into Wimbledon.

So when he used his big serve-and-volley game to beat former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, well, let him say what he did on the side of the court afterward:

“I cried like a little girl.’’

Well, Brown lost to Adrian Mannarino 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 Friday. Mannarino is another underdog. Darcis, who beat Nadal, was so beat up that he couldn’t play his second-round match. Stakhovsky lost to Jurgen Melzer and kicked himself because he was still riding the emotion of beating Federer:

“I’m just a little disappointed that I got so blinded by the game I produced with Roger,’’ he said. “If I would be just a bit smarter on that court, I could have been a winner today, I think.’’

After Brown’s match, he defended the little guy. He was not in awe of the moment, so much as scolding people who thought he should be. He said there were hundreds of people just like him and Mannarino and Darcis out there fighting it out for enough scraps of rankings points to earn the way to the big tour. You have to beat guys who can beat Federer at Wimbledon to get there.

I loved that. He stood for something.

He did it in a Bob Marley T-shirt.

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