Saturday, September 4, 2010

Harrison's Heartbreak Hotel

Ryan Harrison brought the crowd to his feet for the better part of his first two matches. But it wasn't meant to be.
After two straight years where he fell in the first round of U.S. Open qualifying, young American Ryan Harrison broke through in 2010 and reached his first main draw. As many of you know, the fun didn't stop there.

Harrison's huge upset over No. 15 seed Ivan Ljubicic gave the tennis world a glimpse of what Harrison could do. He isn't the prototypical American baseline basher - he's more of a cerebral player that uses a vast array of shotmaking potentialities to keep opponents off balance. It's refreshing to see an American who isn't content to just serve big and rip forehands from the baseline, regardless of whether the strategy is paying dividends or not.

Harrison, who along with his younger brother Christian, has learned the game under the tutelage of his father Pat Harrison. He's also spent a lot of time at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, and when he's traveled on the tour he's had Jay Berger, who is a USTA men's national coach, with him as well.

If it sounds like a lot of people to listen to and be influenced by, you're right. This might be the reason that Harrison has developed such a nice variety to his game. "He has wide open ears, always willing to learn, wanting to grow and develop," says Tracy Austin.

And Austin wasn't the only tennis luminary who was wowed by Harrison's maturity, and his eagerness to soak up any opportunity that he had to learn, like a sponge. Navritalova, Connors, John McEnroe, and many others were impressed with the way the 18-year-old carried himself during his brief run at the Open. It's one thing to win a few matches, but it is entirely another to display the type of maturity, conviction, and humility that portend much more future success.

Harrison, with his calm demeanor, sense of respect for his coaches and higher ranked players, and his overall Nadal-like commitment to steadily and persistently improving, might have a bigger upside than most of his peers. "I love his attitude, and his work ethic as well," says Austin. It is a sentiment that was echoed by almost everyone who chipped in their two cents on the young man.

There truly was a lot to like about Harrison, who has a very calm on court demeanor, and seems to enjoy the art of problem solving and making adjustments a lot more than most 18-year-olds who've been thrust into their first taste of big time tennis.

"I'm trying hopefully to get to the top ten," said Harrison, "so I feel like one match doesn't make or break that. It's the experience of playing these types of matches that is really going to help me get there."

Harrison, who held three match points against Ukranian Sergiy Stahkovsky, saw his unexpected run end abruptly when his opponent hit two booming serves, then outlasted Harrison in a longer rally in which the American appeared to be visibly feeling the pressure. On the next point, the rattled Shreveport native double faulted, giving Stakhovsky a match point of his own that he would not fail to convert.

It was a shattering turn of events that quited a raucous crowd on Grandstand, and in a matter of a New York minute, Harrison went from being the can't miss kid from another player barely inside the top-200 that needs to learn how to deal with the pressure of closing matches out on a grand stage.

Perhaps the setback was exactly what Harrison needed? While Melanie Oudin, the darling of the 2009 Open, fell under the weight of unrealistic expectations in 2010, Harrison will have to head back to the practice court with a bitter taste in his mouth.

As good as he was this week, he was one big serve from being a heck of a lot better. But the sting of the moment won't deter from Harrison from trudging onward, and from looking at the big picture instead of getting bogged down.

"I'm just going to keep my head down, and work as hard as I can and listen to the people I trust and develop my game," he said.

"I've got a lot of work to do. From the time I get back home until my next tournaments, my goal is going to be improving my game until I can be a consistent contender, and the ranking and all that stuff will take care of itself."

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