(March 12, 2012)-- If you asked him, I’m sure you’d get no argument from Ryan Harrison that his record against the cream of the ATP’s crop needs to improve. Harrison has lost all ten of his previous encounters with top ten opponents, he’s never been past the second round of a Grand Slam and he hasn’t been past the fourth round of a Masters 1000 event.
In spite of all the promise that the 19-year-old possesses, he’s arguably not living up to the hype in the biggest matches on the biggest stages, against the biggest names in the sport.
But all of that—and with it the career arc of the second-youngest player in the ATP’s top 100—could change this week.
Because of Andy Murray’s early exit from the draw, Harrison has a winnable third-round match against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, a player that he defeated last year at Indian Wells. I know that tennis players are methodically trained to take one point at a time, one match at a time, etc…but when I look at the BNP Paribas Open draw, I can’t help but see a crater-sized opportunity, not just for Harrison to repeat his career-best fourth-round result at a Masters event, but to go all the way to semifinals.
With the Gilles Simon-Stan Wawrinka winner in the fourth round and probably the Mardy Fish-John Isner winner if he somehow finds his way into the quarterfinals, a semifinal really could be in the cards.
Before you call me crazy, realize this: it’s going to happen sometime. Why not now?
And before you chastise Harrison—or even worse, write him off—for not having had the success that Bernard Tomic has had in the Grand Slams, keep in mind that success comes to players at different times in their career. Harrison lost a heartbreaking 5th set tiebreaker to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round of the 2010 US Open, who knows what he might have done if he had won that match?
About a year later, Harrison pushed David Ferrer to a fifth set on the Wimbledon grass, again falling short.
Was it a sign that he’s never going to be a big match player, or a call for Harrison to put his nose back to the grindstone and keep working harder than ever?
Harrison chose the latter, and his indefatigable work ethic has allowed him to keep moving forward, even against the undertow of mixed results that can kill the confidence of younger players who fall prey to expectations at such a young age.
Harrison’s dogged persistence, his genuine passion for improving, for learning and for relishing in the losses as well as the victories, is what ultimately will enable him to become the player he knows he can be.
In spite of his lack of a top ten win, Harrison still faithfully believes they are coming. “I've always done better playing people after I've played them the first time, because I think on the court. I'm very good at reading players and reading their styles,” said Harrison. “Usually whenever I have played someone I can go out with a better idea and [be] a more comfortable player than I did the first time.”
If you—like many—are currently operating under the belief that Harrison is going to be one of those players who will be forever destined to let his mental issues get in the way of his world-class game, you should know that the 19-year-old is tirelessly working on that, too. “November and December it was the biggest focus for me, learning how to control my energy into a positive mindset,” said Harrison of his fiery McEnroe-esque temper. “Now, even if I do, you know, get a little frustrated at times, I'm able to channel it in a way that's going to help me.”
Temper or not, promise or not, the expectations will always be there for Harrison. The Shreveport, La. native is one of only eleven people to win an ATP main draw match (Houston, 2008) before his sixteenth birthday, and the only player to accomplish the feat since Rafael Nadal did it in 2002.
Naturally, there has been lots of talk of Harrison’s potential to be the next great American tennis star.
There will be expectations tonight when Harrison takes the court against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and the hype machine will surely be warmed up if he is able to get the win.
There will also be lots of belief and positive energy, something that Harrison naturally exudes.
“You know, I definitely have the expectation of winning,” said Harrison. “I believe that I can do it.”
It’s been nearly four years since Harrison first raised the collective eyebrow of the American tennis fan in Houston. In that time there have been a few bumps along the road, a lot of racquets smashed, and some really gut-wrenching losses.
But all the while, when you watch him, you get that feeling that he’s making huge strides, even if the signature wins haven’t come yet.
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