Dustin Brown: Tennis outlier, tennis intellect

LONDON -- Dustin Brown is an outlier of a tennis player in ways both superficial and deep. He looks different than other players at Wimbledon: He has long dreadlocks and his torso bears a tattoo of his father. And Brown plays differently, serving and volleying on nearly every serve, while approaching the net on return behind forehand slices and drop shots, as he did repeatedly on his way to upsetting two-time Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal on Thursday.

To a member of his coaching team, Brown is an outlier in another, less obvious way: He has a keen, analytical mind for tennis.

Craig O'Shannessy, who has also coached Kevin Anderson and Rajeev Ram, recalled in an interview Friday what he thought when he first talked tennis with Brown about five years ago: "Thank goodness, we've got a tennis mind here."

What stood out to O'Shannessy was Brown's focus on his opponent's game rather than his own. O'Shannessy says eight or nine out of 10 players focus on their own game. Brown, though, "is on the good side of the coin."

"He is one of the smartest players I've ever worked with," O'Shannessy said.

Brown's game can look instinctive rather than considered: half-volley drop shots, ferocious flat returns and drive backhand volleys. But there is method to what sometimes looks like madness. "I want Dustin's game to look like complete chaos to the world, but it's all organized," said O'Shannessy, who focuses on analysis in his work with Brown.

What works for Brown can't work for everyone. Brown has unique tools, honed from practicing unusual shots endlessly since he first picked up a racket as a boy in Germany. The typical player has tried some of Brown's favored shots -- like those drop-shot returns -- only occasionally in practice and lacks the confidence to try them in a match. Tactics the coach would never advise for other players are high-percentage plays for Brown.

"A lot of percentages here really shift because he's practiced and perfected difficult elements of the game," O'Shannessy said.

The result is a game style that is distinctive to Brown, so opponents can't feel comfortable facing him. Who would they even choose for a practice partner? The last time Nadal faced someone like Brown was when he played Brown himself last June, losing 6-4, 6-1 in Halle, Germany.

Brown is a statistical outlier, too. He has served and volleyed on 80 percent of his second serves so far at Wimbledon, compared to five percent overall in men's singles through Friday afternoon, according to official stats-keepers IBM. And Brown is leading all men with 20 return winners, seven more than runner-up Ivo Karlovic, the man left in the draw who plays the most like Brown.

It's a style few coaches would teach young players, but there's virtue in taking a high-risk, high-reward approach in a sport that enriches only its most successful 100 or so players. A baseline game might be the surest route to competence in tennis. But if you're aiming for moments like a Centre Court upset of Nadal, it's a better bet to develop a unique style and perfect it. And this unique style has the added benefit of shortening points and minimizing physical wear, which has Brown peaking at age 30.

The benefits are mental as well as tactical. Both Nadal and Brown said after the match that Brown's organized chaos robbed Nadal of rhythm. O'Shannessy also thinks Nadal, usually an adept problem solver on court, didn't adapt his game because Brown's game is like an "avalanche." He said, "Just imagine an avalanche is coming at you. Your mind is not clear."

Brown's mind, though keen and analytical, isn't always totally clear during matches, either. O'Shannessy advised his player to have at least one foot in the doubles alley when returning from the ad court, to neutralize Nadal's wide lefty serve. Brown didn't do it in the first two sets. When player and coach met after the match, O'Shannessy's first question after congratulating Brown was to ask why. Brown said he simply forgot.

Brown could also stand to play higher-percentage patterns occasionally, O'Shannessy said. As good as Brown's drop shots are, hitting them too often makes them predictable and less effective -- too much organization, not enough chaos. Sometimes, even Brown should hit the safe, deep volley rather than what his coach calls the "ultra-spectacular."

O'Shannessy planned to watch footage of Viktor Troicki, Brown's opponent Friday, to hone the refine details of Brown's typical game plan of relentless attack. Troicki isn't Nadal, but the match has higher stakes: It's worth twice the ranking points, and the winner will face an unseeded opponent in the fourth round.