On Thursday afternoon, the Stuttgart crowd was treated to a ‘Dustin Brown moment’. At 5-6 in the second set of his second-round MercedesCup match against reigning Nitto ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev, the 34-year-old Brown faced set point when he leapt across the court — seemingly freezing in the air mid-dive — to successfully reach a forehand volley, allowing himself to stay in the set. The World No. 170 quickly leapt back up, turned around and let out a massive roar to celebrate.
Few players would dare try such a shot. But that is the type of player Brown — who upset the top seed in three sets for his first tour-level win since the 2017 US Open and the fifth Top 10 victory of his career — is, and that’s why he’s earned countless fans throughout the world during his career. What people may not know is that just more than two years ago, he suffered a serious back injury.
At 2017 Montpellier, after defeating then-World No. 7 Marin Cilic, Brown had to retire after one game in his quarter-final against Benoit Paire due to back pain. Brown would later find out it was a herniated disc. He still is dealing with the subsequent nerve damage.
“It’s just something that I have to live with now and try to manage and try to get through it and work on it,” Brown told ATPTour.com. “There are a lot of players out there who have had injuries, had surgeries that they have to manage to try to keep on playing well. But it’s not an ankle that you tear and after six weeks or two months everything is fine again.”
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The same injury forced him to withdraw in Montpellier last year while leading a match 7-6, 5-2. Former World No. 64 Brown, who owns two triumphs against Rafael Nadal, fell as low as No. 258 in the ATP Rankings last July as he struggled to find his best form.
But that makes moments like Thursday’s victory even more special. When Zverev could not put a final Brown backhand volley back into play, the qualifier dropped his racquet and pulled his shirt over his face out of joy.
“I guess that [moment of happiness] is everything that’s going through my mind, just ending up pulling it off. I’m just happy that I’m still in the tournament, still have chances to get more points, and that I’m playing very good tennis,” Brown said.
That moment was close to not coming to fruition. At 5-5 in the second set, Brown had a good look at a backhand volley that, if he made it, would have allowed him to serve for the match. But the veteran hit the volley into the net. It would have been easy to let the match slip from there against last week’s Roland Garros quarter-finalist. But the German did not panic.
“At that point you’re not thinking about the past. You’re thinking about the volley or certain parts in the match, but not about things that have happened,” Brown said. “I was playing the No. 5 in the world. I won the first set, had a chance there to maybe serve for it, too. But at the end of the day, either way, it’s still a positive thing, so I just tried to stay calm and kept playing, trying to wait on another chance.”
Brown continued playing aggressively and without hesitation. The German stretched down to touch his toes before match point. But otherwise, based on his play, it’d be tough to tell that Brown is dealing with a back injury, especially with his athletic, high-flying game.
“You just try and find ways to manage it. I guess it took a while to figure out and I think it’s also healing and getting better and it’s maybe not as bad as it used to be,” Brown said. “It’s just a process. I try and manage it and a lot of players have things that they have to deal with with their body. It’s just part of the game.”
Brown isn’t getting too far ahead of himself after defeating Zverev. He knows a tough challenge is ahead in #NextGenATP Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. The 18-year-old has reached two ATP Tour finals and is pursuing his first tour-level title this week.
“It goes round by round. If I go on the court tomorrow, whoever I play, no one cares. It doesn’t make a difference if I have won against Alex. Even if I’ve won four matches, you still need to go out there and do your job that day,” Brown said. “Obviously I’ll just try to get my body ready and try to concentrate and play a good match tomorrow.”
It has not been the easiest two years for Brown, both physically and on the court. But the 34-year-old knows that on his day, especially on grass, there is no reason he can’t compete against the best players in the world. And regardless of his current ATP Ranking, Brown is focused on improving.
“You try to keep working,” Brown said. “Things get better.”