By Douglas Robson
Say this for Ryan Harrison: He has moxie. The teenager who excited the hopes and hearts of hometown fans with a stirring effort at last year’s US Open does not miss a beat when asked how he’d like to leave New York in 2011. "Win the tournament?" he laughs.
Harrison is only half-joking. And that’s what makes him the USA’s most promising—and to opponents, dangerous—up-and-coming male pro. "Ryan has some swagger," says Patrick McEnroe, head of the USTA’s Player Development program.
Harrison’s innate confidence showed up early. In 2008, at age 15, he became one of the youngest players in the Open era to win a pro match, when he did so at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston. Yet casual fans didn’t locate the Louisiana native on their radar until last August, when he stunned former Top 5 player Ivan Ljubicic in the first round in New York and then lost an electrifying but wrenching match on a packed Grandstand Court to Sergiy Stakhovsky of Ukraine after holding match points.
"You never really get over something like that," says the 19-year-old Harrison, who lives and trains in Bradenton, Fla. "It’s still in the back of my mind. But it’s not something I want to get over. Whenever I think about it, it doesn’t depress me; it motivates me. I’ve looked at it as something where I want to work hard enough to be in those situations and come through."
This spring and summer, Harrison continued his steady climb up tennis’ ladder. He won two rounds of qualifying at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and slipped into the main draw of both events as a lucky loser. He was unfortunate to draw two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling in Paris, but took the Swede to four sets. In London, he knocked out 37th-ranked Ivan Dodig of Croatia in straight sets and pushed perennial Top 10 player David Ferrer to the distance in the second round, losing, 6-7, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. By early July, he was knocking on the door of the Top 100 for the first time despite a career 10-21 record.
McEnroe praises Harrison for his work ethic and his burning desire to succeed. But that flame can sometimes turn into a wildfire. Already in 2011 he has racked up $3,700 in fines for racquet abuse and audible obscenities in three majors. "He’s got to harness that energy a little bit," says Andy Roddick, who has become Harrison’s de facto mentor. "He goes a little mental sometimes. ... For him, I think it’s between the ears at this point. He certainly serves well. He competes. I think everything that’s going to be tough for him is going to make him better, too, because he cares so much about winning and losing, which I don’t think we’ve had enough of, frankly, in the States as far as the up-and-coming players. "I think it’s just a matter of him figuring out a comfortable line where it’s not a different emotion every day. "
Harrison admits he has always walked an emotional high wire. "There’s been a couple times in the last few months where I’ve snapped," he says. But the young man whose parents taught him to say "Yes sir" and "No ma’am" wouldn’t trade his combustible desire for something less volatile. He says it has helped him become one of the top-ranked players of his age and one of only two teens to make Wimbledon’s main draw. He calls the balance, "Don’t lose the fire, but control yourself." Not that it’s a new mantra. Harrison conceded his temper goes back a long way. He’s done his share of push-ups as punishment as a result. "It wasn’t that I stopped doing the racquet throwing and getting mad," he says. "I just did a lot of push-ups."
Like his emotions, Harrison’s game is a work in progress. A talented shot-maker, Harrison is sometimes overeager to exploit his all-court game. But picking the right moment to serve-and-volley, stay back and grind, feather a drop shot or transition to the net can confound. Scott McCain, his primary coach since April, says Harrison is already a top competitor. He can win free points with his serve. He has an above-average forehand and moves well for a player still growing into his 6-foot-1 frame. The Austin-based McCain says he is concentrating with Harrison on setting up points with his stronger wing, better court positioning and picking his moments to attack the net. "It’s management of your skills," says McCain.
McCain notes that Harrison’s panic mode too often results in anger-fueled over- hitting. "He has to work on controlling his emotions so that he’s positive and can work himself out of a difficult situation using his abilities and his tennis skills rather than just thinking he can punch a guy’s lights out or hit the ball huge all the time," says McCain. But like Harrison, he sees positive in his young charge’s hunger to win. "Maybe Ryan gets ticked in the same way because he’s a perfectionist," says McCain, who does not think Harrison is cut from the same volatile cloth as John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, whose outbursts were legendary and often helpful. But he can get down on himself. "He’s demanding of himself. He cares a lot about winning."
To compete with today’s physical specimens, Harrison also is working on his fitness—especially since he recalls being spent after his five-set loss last year at Flushing Meadows. "I mean, I woke up after my Stakhovsky match and I could barely walk the next day," Harrison says. When he stays composed, he can play dictating, authoritative tennis. Harrison showed against Soderling in Paris and against Spain’s Ferrer in London that he also can hang with the sport’s elite.
"Looking back, it’s a really special memory," says Harrison of his US Open showing last year. "The fact that I lost is not necessarily the main thing I can take from it. It’s the way the moment went down, how the crowd was behind me, the packed Grandstand, and so much support. I played at a very high level even though I got squeaked out there at the end. ... I’ve watched videos of that at times and I can hardly believe that was me standing there in that moment."
Harrison is brash enough to wish for a US Open crown, but he hopes along the way to play on Arthur Ashe Stadium or experience the thrill of a night match.
He says he’s ready for anything. "Wherever I end up I’m going to take each match as if comes and try to win it," he says.