Dustin Brown was hitting balls on the first day of professional tennis since the middle of March, and I had the best seat in the house.
The dreadlocked German was traversing brick-red clay with veteran savvy, and tormenting his opponent, Jean-Marc Werner, with an array of spins and blasts. It all happened about five feet in front of me. That wouldn’t be notable but for the fact that I was sitting on my couch in southwestern Connecticut, and Brown was playing tennis in southwestern Germany.
There were no fans in attendance on tennis’ re-opening day, at the Base Tennis club in Höhr-Grenzhausen, but Brown’s match was still one of the most anticipated in tennis history—for a difficult reason.
“A couple of weeks ago there were no plans to get on the court anytime soon,” says Brown, referencing the coronavirus-induced shutdown of sports around the world. “Was a tough time because it’s tough to get motivated when there’s no date for returning to play.”
So Brown and Rodney Rapson, the managing director for Europe and the United Kingdom for the court-capturing technology PlaySight, made their own date: May 1. Brown, the 35-year-old serve-and-volleyer whose claim to fame is a 2-0 record against Rafael Nadal—including a victory at Wimbledon—and seven other local players with varying degrees of professional success decided to create a unique event. Over the course of four days, it would follow all local COVID-19 restrictions and adhere to social-distancing, tennis-style: no ballpersons; players would handle their own towels and call their own lines (with a chair umpire able to overrule); drinks and snacks must be prepackaged. Each player was quarantined for at least two weeks, and cleared by their personal doctors.
It may not have looked exactly like the tennis we know—the most jarring sight being players coming to court wearing facemasks—but the game itself was back.
“It’s different to play when you don’t really have any fans there,” says Brown, “but at the end of the day I think all of the guys—Yannick [Hanfmann, the highest-ranked player in the competition], the other guys—are just happy to be on the court to play and compete.”
If this exact event had taken place without a pandemic engulfing the planet, Brown would have been heavily favored to succeed, given his credentials. But under these circumstances, and after not having hit balls for “four or five weeks,” according to Brown? Rust would have explained any result.
Nevertheless, the 239th-ranked headliner won both of his matches on Friday, against Werner (who reached a career-high No. 482 in 2015) and Constantin Schmitz (currently the ATP No. 614) in straight sets. In quick sets, too: in the Fast4 format, each set was played to four games, with tiebreaks at 3-all, along with no-ad scoring.
“Watching Fast4 and Laver Cup, there’s never any dull moments in the game,” says Brown, who will face Hanfmann in Saturday’s second match. “I think it keeps [fans] interested.
“I really like the format, and also because the players haven’t been able to play and train the way they normally would. I think fitness-wise it would have been an issue to play best-of-three sets, two matches a day.”
FULL MATCH REPLAY: Dustin Brown vs. Constantin Schmitz
After securing a permit, the club was given the OK to hold practice last Monday. Brown lives about 100 kilometers away from the facility, in Cologne, and will drive back and forth each day of the Tennis Point Exhibition Series, which has two additional installments in the coming weeks.
Depending on how long a day’s play lasts, he’s considering staying overnight at Base Tennis—not exactly the hotel life Brown has known for years, but a new home away from home in a new tennis normal.
“I actually feel pretty good, serving well, everything’s there,” says Brown. “Obviously, to get back on the tour, there’s a lot more work to do for the body to be ready to play longer matches. But at the end of the day, we don’t know when that’s going to be.”
And with that, it was the end of Brown’s day, and the start of tennis again.