By Stephen Tignor
The acrobatic overheads, the well-chosen forays to the net, the competitive fire: Even though it ended in a loss, there was a lot for a fan of American tennis to like in Ryan Harrison’s second-round match with Sergiy Stakhovsky at this year’s US Open. And that included what happened afterward.
Shortly after losing three match points—he really only “squandered” one of them—in a fifth-set tie-break in front of a jammed and roaring Grandstand audience, the 18-year-old Louisianan was asked what the whole experience had meant to him. Harrison sounded like he’d been considering his answer for 10 years, not 10 minutes. “Looking back on
it,” he said with the earnest, articulate enthusiasm that he brings to every topic and conversation, “it was a great experience. My ranking is 220 in the world right now [he was up to 175 by November], so I feel like one match doesn’t break that. It’s the experience of playing these matches that’s really going to help me get there.” In that instance, Harrison defined himself as a poised and polished presence, a great talent who just might be the next great thing.
Grounded and mature, with no discernible sense of entitlement, Harrison is the product of a support system that stretches from his tennis-loving nuclear family to his tennis-crazed extended family at the Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he has trained since 2008. A Shreveport, La., native, Harrison is surrounded by the sport on all sides. His brother, Christian, is also a player, and at 14 is considered, potentially, an ever bigger talent than Ryan himself. “He hits a cleaner ball than I did at his age,” Ryan says. Their father, Pat, is a former pro who spent most of his career on the Challenger circuit before becoming an instructor at John Newcombe’s Tennis Ranch and now at Bollettieri’s. “My dad has been a great role model for me my entire life,” Harrison says. “He’s literally explained everything to me from the time I was a little kid.” Pat even taught his son how to lose—to him. When Ryan was 11, the two met in the final of the Shreveport city championships. Dad showed no mercy, beating his son, 6-1, 6-3.
Harrison will need all the support and maturity he can muster in the months and years to come. While his brief US Open run put a charge into the tournament and put him on the radar screens of millions of sports fans for the first time, it also raised expectations. After the Open, Harrison moved to the front of the line in the “next big thing” sweepstakes. Within hours, the words “Top 10 potential” were being heard, and they were coming from the lips of those who should know. “He’s got the head for the game, and he’s got the firepower,” says Patrick McEnroe, General Manager of USTA Player Development, who saw Harrison up close during Davis Cup workouts in Colombia last fall. McEnroe was impressed, as much as anything, with Harrison’s second serve, a key shot at the highest levels of the game. “It’s already unbelievable,” McEnroe says. “He really goes after it.”
From one U.S. Davis Cup captain to another, the assessment remains the same. “Ryan is the best 18-year-old American pro I’ve seen since Roddick,” says Jim Courier. “First and foremost, he wants the ball. He’s not afraid of the moment, and that’s special. He has a long road, but he’s very eager. He wants it.”
That includes wanting the Next Big Thing label, something that might be an albatross for others. “Absolutely I want to be that guy,” Harrison says. “I’ve always had the mentality where I wanted to be the best. I’ve always wanted to be at the top, to win Grand Slams.” As always, Harrison’s boldness is tempered with realism and more than a touch of humility. “I have a ways to go,” he says. “I’m definitely working as hard as I can. I’m trying to stay open-minded with everyone who’s giving me their opinion and trying to take in as much advice as I can.”
Prodigies come and go. Great Grandstand matches come and go. What makes Harrison a potentially exciting change from the norm is the way he plays. Yes, like virtually everyone else, he has a two-handed backhand. And yes, he has a forehand appears to have come factory-sealed from Bradenton. But Harrison also has the instincts of an all-courter. He has a reliable slice backhand that he uses for approach shots, and, if his US Open performance is any indication, he knows how to pick his spots. “I don’t want to be exclusively a serve-and-volleyer,” Harrison says.
Talking about the Stakhovsky match, he says, “I served and volleyed an incredible amount because the guy had a one-handed backhand, and he was chipping a lot of them.” But Harrison is committed to the net-rushing style for the long haul. He and Pat designedhis game to exploit his natural quickness and athleticism, and Harrison has already developed a signature shot around the net, a backwards-leaping overhead that had the crowd on its feet in Flushing. Recently, Harrison hired Martin Damm, a former net-rushing doubles specialist on the pro tour, as his personal coach.
The nuance in Harrison’s game may come from the place where it evolved—on the USTA Pro Circuit, rather than on the junior circuit. Compared to other phenoms such as Donald Young, who was world famous by 15, Harrison managed to fly under the media radar until this year. He was never the No. 1 junior, in part because he was already trying his luck at the pro level. “I started playing pros when I was 16,” says Harrison, who has been home-schooled by his mother since he was in sixth grade. “I got to a point where I felt like I could start making strides professionally.”
As level-headed as Harrison is off the court, he’s not as easygoing on it as some of his fellow U.S. players, like Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish. “He’s got a temper,” is how Nick Bollettieri puts it. “But that can be a good thing. He just needs to learn to use it.”
Harrison showed plenty of fire, and stamina, through those five long, hot sets on the Grandstand. After all, you need more than great strokes to get a New York crowd to its feet. And you need to win more than one match at a Grand Slam to make yourself the Next Big Thing. Those all are facts of which Harrison is well aware. “This was the breakout run of my career,” he said at the Open, “and I’m [only] in the round of 64. I’ve got to really keep working.”
How old is this kid again?