Thursday, February 10, 2011

Donald Young Has Time On His Side

Once a prodigy, now nearly forgotten, Donald Young's game still has the sparkle that turned all those heads in the first place.

=== San Jose, Ca.

It was just a little over three years ago that Donald Young finished 2007 as the youngest player in the ATP top-100. The gifted southpaw, who finished 2005 as the No. 1 junior in the world, was a natural on the court -- he had smooth well-oiled strokes, and a pair of soft scissor hands at the net.

What was there not to get excited about? Young was trampling his peers, and he turned pro at the age of 14.

So the press got their fingers typing. They'd been hip to the story since John McEnroe touted Young's deft hands when he happened upon the 10-year-old at tennis tournament in Illinois. Intrigued by McEnroe's praises, they continued typing away, mentioning Young alongside Barack Obama in Newsweek's "Who's Next 2005" issue.

Many argue vehemently that the attention did a still developing Young a disservice, but who could blame the press for churning out stories about the young phenom? It's what the press has always done and it's what the press will always do. Consider it an unwritten law of nature. And for those who think that Young was cursed by his fate, consider the alternative: toiling away in relative obscurity -- what fun is that for a young kid who wants to be a pro?

Expectations do present a complex challenge to any developing prodigy, but for those who have designs on making a living as a professional tennis player it's bound to happen sooner or later -- why not get it over with early in the game, and find out what you're made of? Tennis is, after all, about handling pressure more than anything else.

Whether Young wanted it or not, the pressure was going to come to rest on his shoulders. The fact that Young was worthy of the press as a junior, and moreover, the fact that he continued to produce huge success in spite of the growing attention, alluded to the fact that Young might very well be the real deal.

His promise as yet still unfulfilled, Young was in action against Richard Berankis in San Jose today. And while we can all agree on the fact that Young is not the next John McEnroe or Arthur Ashe, it's still quite clear even to the casual observer that Young has exceptional talent.

Still, three years after his professional breakthrough (3rd round U.S. Open appearance in 2007 and a career-high ranking of No. 73 in early 2008), Donald Young's career is stuck in neutral. Sure, his game still shines at times. He's still got that gorgeous topspin forehand, and he can still put it pretty much wherever he wants when he's going good. He's still a very clever and creative shot maker that can open the court with improbably placed angles.

Young is a talented player -- make no mistake about it -- and he always has been. But something is still holding him back. He hasn't been to an ATP level quarterfinal in three years.

That was, however, about to change today.

Perhaps Young was aware that his opponent, the up-and-coming Lithuanian Richard Berankis, was now the youngest player in the ATP's top-100, just like he had been three years ago.

Perhaps Young was bent on giving the Lithuanian a dose of the type of disappointment that he himself has been experiencing for what must feel like an eternity.

Whatever the case, young was playing inspired tennis, and it was good to see.

Entering the tournament ranked 146, Young fought off a one set deficit to level the match, then surged to a 5-2 lead in the third set by being the more decisive player. He was fierce, aggressive, and imposing. Young was taking an excellent young player in Berankis and making him play second fiddle to him.

Tennis matches are like turf wars, and Young was wielding the heavier artillery.

I'd like to end this story here, and tell you all that Donald Young finished Berankis off with a huge service game, but that would be too easy.

Easy just wouldn't be Donald Young.

The harsh truth of the matter is that Young melted down and coughed up the match by losing the final five games of the third set. However thick the 21-year-old's skin has gotten over the last three years, it wasn't thick enough to avoid another gutwrenching defeat. And this was one that he should have won. Young was serving at 5-3, 30-0, when he inexplicably lost his mojo.

It's the grave axiom that always comes back to haunt you in tennis: You can be a physical phenom for two hours but you can ruin it all with one mental midget minute.

One slight hiccup -- a double fault at 30-all -- when serving for the match and the floodgates opened for Berankis to play his way through.

For five straight games, the intuitive and mature-for-his-age Lithuanian made Young play. And Young, who'd become rattled after blowing his chance to serve it out, became timid. All I could do was roll my eyes and feel for Young. He had played nearly three sets of ball-to-the-walls tennis, then he tried to finish the match by sitting back and waiting for Berankis to go away.

Not a solid plan by any means.

To his credit, Young kept fighting even as he grew despondent. But you could tell he didn't believe he was going to win. Even as he saved three match points with Berankis serving, there wasn't enough belief.

Knowing he was two points from a monster win will probably sting. But maybe, when he wakes up tomorrow, he'll realize that the fact that he gave himself a chance to win is a good thing.

There's hope.

And if Young can forget where he has been, and who he was supposed to be, maybe he can find a way to turn that hope back into the dream.

There's plenty of room for improvement in Young's game, but to say he's washed up at 21 would be a sin.

Young doesn't deserve the pedestal, but he doesn't deserve the trash heap either.

Here's to hoping he proves us all wrong someday, by proving that we were all right in the first place.


  1. I love this: "You can be a physical phenom for two hours but you can ruin it all with one mental midget minute." Did you make that up?

    The media can get pretty annoying in hyping people up.

  2. Mitch -- thanks man. Yeah, the term "mental midget" has been in my head ever since I heard Rennae Stubbs call Ernests Gulbis that while commentating a match from Australia earlier this year.

    I think in Young's case, it was hard not to hype him. He was awesome. I just don't like the way they (we?) have to drag somebody down when they don't quite meet the lofty expectations that've been set.

  3. Nice write up Chris. You and M. Cronin did D. Young pieces on the same day and jinxed the poor guy ;)

    Seriously though, you might be one of the few writers left who still feel Young has time on his side. I think he does but he has to start making some moves both in his game and his ranking soon or he could lose ground and sponsorships if he hasn't already.

    Also, did you ever see the film Unstrung about him and Querrey's rise in the junior world and how differently they went about it? Worth a look.

  4. Erik -- thanks for checkin in. I think in DY's case, where there's a will there's a way.

    Is there a will? That is the question...


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