As Dustin Brown wandered around Wimbledon Village late on Thursday night, everyone knew his name. In the well-to-do London suburb, there are not many 6ft 5ins German Rastafarians to be seen and, anyway, only one of them had just knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbledon. Everybody wanted to shake his hand.
Brown’s scintillating but idiosyncratic game, his laid back, off-court demeanour and that huge tattoo of his father, Leroy, down his left side (it took eight hours to do and was excruciatingly painful at the time) ensure that Brown is seldom ignored. But there was a time when standing out from the crowd was the last thing that Brown wanted. Growing up in the 1980s in Celle in northern Germany, with a German mother and a Jamaican father, there was nowhere for him to hide.
“Where I grew up, I experienced a lot of problems with racism,” Brown said. “The village next to my town was infamous for being a Nazi stronghold. We were three or four coloured kids around and sometimes the other ones showed up with knives after school. That’s why I had some punch-ups in primary school.”
We may live in slightly more enlightened times now but the anonymity of the internet still allows the racists to thrive. Whenever he loses a match, they crawl out of the ether and post vitriol and bile on social networking sites – usually because they have lost a couple of quid on his result.
“It’s a shame when people nowadays attack me on the internet, but I guess most of the time it has got something to do with betting stuff,” he said. “Over the years I have learned how to cope with it. It’s a poor thing from those people. Of course they are not happy. But it’s the same if I chose to go to the casino tonight and I lose money, then I can’t blame the guys working at the roulette tables.
“I try to be patient with those people, but, from time to time, I have to react and tell them what I think. I try to keep it as normal as I can. People who condemn me should show up right after a match – this would have a different outcome.”
Brown’s story is as remarkable as his tennis. Moving to Jamaica when he was 12, travelling around the small, European tournaments and living out of a camper van as a young man, adopting German nationality five years ago – all these experiences have made him the player he is now. Seemingly very comfortable in his own skin, he is not sure that he could have coped with the present media hullaballoo had it happened when he was 25 rather than 30.
“My appearance is German,” he joked, his dreadlocks, which have not been trimmed since 1996, tucked in a woolly hat. “I very much care about being punctual and I really don’t like it if somebody is late. That’s why most of the time I leave early to be on time. I speak German without any accent [he comes from a region where the purest German is spoken]. And the way I look and what everybody says is different about me – that is probably the Jamaican part. I am the way I am. I’ve been like this all my life. Obviously it’s great that people appreciate it.
“I guess it just takes a long time for everything to fall in place and maybe three, four, five or six years ago, I wasn’t ready for it. Who knows for whatever reason? The things that are happening now, I just try to enjoy it as much as I can and not worry about what could have been or what should have been.”
What might be is that he might be in the fourth round of Wimbledon should he beat Viktor Troicki today – and that would be the furthest he has gone in a grand slam. But backing up a big win is never easy and wins do not get much bigger than beating Nadal. And he knows that Troicki, still forcing his way back after serving an 12-month ban between 2013 and 2014 for refusing to give a blood sample to an anti-doping official (he gave it the following day but the authorities still pressed charges) is going to be a dogged and determined opponent. A finalist in Stuttgart, a semi-finalist at Queen’s, Troicki is feeling confident on grass.
“We both know what we are going to get,” Brown said. “He is obviously a very tough player on this surface so we are have to go out there and see what we bring on the table on that given day.”
But if Brown can bring just some of the magic that touched his racket on Thursday, we should be in for a treat.