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ATP Challenger Tour Dispatch: Heilbronn

Heilbronn, Germany

Brown© Robert DavisCreativity is part of Dustin Brown's DNA, says his coach.

Veteran tennis writer Robert Davis will be following the ATP Challenger Tour circuit this year and will write a series of reports. This week, he is at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Heilbronn, Germany.

Dustin Brown is in town. And that always makes for an exciting time for tennis fans. No doubt “Dreddy” does more than just play tennis: he entertains. To the untrained eye, Brown might seem like he is taking more risks than the Wolf of Wall Street, pulling the trigger early in the point like a cowboy gone wild. But judging this book by the cover would be a big mistake. Like a modern day Hannibal, Dustin Brown is well aware of his strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and the traps all around him.

“One thing that I believe in is that you can only play as well as your opponent lets you play,” says Brown. “A lot of people say I have no plan, but if they don’t play the way I do or try to understand why I play the way I do, then how can they understand the plan that I have? I have heard many people say that if I did not change the way I played then I would never make it. I have been playing like this since I was a junior; it is the only way I know. And this is the way I believe that I have the best chance to win.”

“What improved the most in Dustin’s game was his head,” says longtime coach Kim Wittenberg. “Now he believes that he can rally if he needs to rally. He will still use his power but more on his terms. Also, Dustin is wired different than the majority of other players. I cannot cut out his creativity. He needs that. It is part of his DNA.”

“I think that by spending more time having a game plan and not panicking at the first sight of trouble has made a big difference,” Brown admits. “Like with my drop shots. Now, I use them more as a tactic and less as a way to check out of the pressure.”

HeilbronnThis week we are here in Heilbronn, Germany. According to the players, nobody does ATP Challengers better than Germany. From players’ services to the players’ party, transport and court conditions, Germany gets it. In fact, the Neckar Cup looks a lot like an ATP World Tour event. And it is not just the organisation but the fans, too. I suppose any nation that has been blessed with the likes of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf knows quality tennis when it sees it. The tournament site is a local club tucked into a little hamlet along the outskirts of Heilbronn proper. One look around and you can see that this is good earth. The red clay courts are heavy and hard-packed, and if you look up from centre court to the surrounding green hills you see nothing but row after row of vineyards. From the club comes the smell of  fresh baked bread, and tennis fans pile on Black Forest ham or honey and wash it all down with ice cold Riesling.

Just like the German tennis fan does not clap without a good reason, it takes a lot to impress a professional tennis player. Having said that I have heard more than a few of the players commenting on Gilles Muller's fine run: three straight Challenger titles in three weeks. And it is rumored that Muller only got his serve broken twice in 15 matches. Now that is impressive!

Hard Decisions
It is that time of the year where players on the fringe have to make some hard decisions, like Dustin Brown did last year when he skipped the qualifying of Roland Garros so he could better prepare for Wimbledon. Helping a young player make the right decision about his future is no easy task. Questions like when to do what, when and where are constant in a young man’s mind. That is where the role of the experienced coach comes in. These coaches are often more than just technical experts but rather more like life coaches.

Take Darren Tandy of Breakpoint Academy. Tandy has had success with Matthew Ebden and Dmitry Tursunov. He is here now with new charge, James Ward. Darren Tandy is known on the tennis tour for his strong beliefs in mentoring and learning by reading. In fact, he has required reading for each player, different books for different men, but with the concept of growing as an individual and a player.

“Training the person is just as important as training the player,” believes Tandy. “I always look at the bigger picture. What do you want to be? What do you want to achieve? Then, ok, what are you prepared to do in order to reach that goal? I will share with my player what I believe to be the necessary steps and ingredients to achieve whatever goal he thinks he can get to. And then usually the goals quickly become realistic. As a team we are focused on the process of reaching goals. Not chasing points.”

Another coach who has drawn a lot of attention is former Top 10 player Greg Rusedski. He is now coaching Britain’s Kyle Edmund.

“You have to do your stepping stones and you have to go through all the steps to get to the Tour,” says Rusedski. “I was not one of these players that was extremely gifted, so I had to study the game in all areas and so I had to learn the game from the inside out. Going into coaching feels like a natural transition for me.”

Rusedski has also had success commentating on television, where his analytical skills as a player have paid off.

“I think I have always been quite analytical as a player,” admits Rusedski. “If you are a good player or become a great player, you watch a lot of tennis. Take Andy Murray, he knows every single tennis stat of the players on the Tour. He follows all the results from the Tour and even Challengers. The great players do that. They usually know everything about nearly all the players, past and present. In their own ways, they are all great students of the game.”

MonroeIt is late in the day here in Heilbronn. All the matches are over and the players are back at the hotel. In the lobby the Czechs and Slovaks are huddled around the television watching ice hockey. Other players are enjoying the barbecue buffet dinner, while a few chat away on their laptops. Alone at the bar, Dustin Brown and his coach Kim Wittenberg are enjoying a beer and a little sharing time.

“After my parents, nobody knows me better as a player and as a person more than Kim,” Brown tells me. “He is like a second father to me. He has taught me a lot more about life than just how to hit a tennis ball.”

Soon another round of beers appears before the two men. Player and coach. Friend and mentor. Still living the dream 20 years on and counting.

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