By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE -- If there's one thing the world already knows about spunky American teenager Ryan Harrison, it is that he does not back down.
After a season that saw him end in the top 80 for the first time, the Harrison has the slight misfortune of drawing No. 4 Andy Murray in the first round of the Australian Open - but he's already chomping at the bit to go out and do battle.
Harrison’s mentor Andy Roddick, whom he trained with at times in Austin during the off season, said that he had hoped that his younger buddy didn't get such a tough draw, yet Harrison himself doesn't seem to mind
"I believe in my game and myself and he's obviously a great player and proven himself at the Slams - but if I do things I am capable of doing, I have a chance to win," Harrison said.
Harrison demands a lot out of himself and had a very decent 2011, inclusion qualifying for the Australian Open (via winning a USTA wild card), Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He had chances against former Roland Garros finalist Robin Soderling in a four-set loss in Paris. At Wimbledon, he trounced the big-serving Croat Ivan Dodig and then took current world No. 5, David Ferrer, to five sets. It is not blowing smoke to say that native of Louisiana brings a lot of weapons to the table, but his high variety game has taken longer to mature than some might like.
That doesn't mean though that the 19-year-old hasn't improved.
"That was my first year full time at ATP level," Harrison said. "With each match I'm more used to pressure of situation and hopefully in near future when I am in the position to win sets and matches against top guys, I'll be more comfortable about how to go about my business and close it out."
Harrison is hyper, super-energetic player who is prone to temper tantrums, but he is deeply involved in every match and is the very opposite of a lackadaisical player. He loves to compete and is known by his coaches and elder players to be an inquisitive sort who has an insatiable appetite for gaining more tennis knowledge. He is smart enough to know that his 2011 was a step in the right direction, but was not world-beating either.
"I wasn't satisfied, but I wasn't disappointed in last season because I know these guys are very good players," said Harrison, who in 2011 upset Canadian sensation Milos Raonic at Indian Wells and played the legendary Roger Federer tough for a set. "At some point in time, I am going to beat some of these guys who are in the top 10 or top 5 and maybe [against Murray] it can happen. I've put myself into a position where I am more comfortable than I was before."
Unlike some young players who temper their expectations publicly, Harrison had said time and time again that he likes being called the United States' greatest hope and that he does have ambitions to reach the top of his sport. He is that confident in his own abilities.
"I've done all the work to put myself into position, but as an athlete, you don't know what moment you are going to break through, whether it's in a few months or next year," he said. "I hope it's this week. But I'm in a good as situation as any time to break out. Ultimately, it's a matter of executing in matches."
Roddick, who is returning from an injury-filled season, noted on Sunday that it is "fair to say that the top four of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Murray have widened the gap between themselves and the rest of the tour." Harrison said that "part of that is in the heads of the rest of the field."
Perhaps he'll show the two Andys that the gap is soon to close.
"I think there is as much of a mental as physical gap," he said. "You can see how all four ended up in the semis of the Grand Slams the last three or four years that there as a difference, but I'm pretty convinced there are lot of people around my ranking who don't approach playing them with full belief they can actually win. That's what I am going to try to do different.
"I've got my game and I am going to believe in it completely and I'm going to trust that if I do things the right way, I am going to win. That’s the way I'm going to approach the [Murray] match."
Five Amercian players qualified for Australian Open, more than any other country. Two men - Alex Kuznetsov and Denis Kudla - got through, as did three women: Vavara Lepchenko, Jaime Hampton and Alison Riske. Pittsburgh native Riske credits her progress with the time she spent in Florida during the off season with USTA Player Development, competing against fellow youngsters including Melanie Oudin, Madison Keys, Shelby Rogers and Allie Will.
"I never had the chance where I could play with girls every day and it was great for my confidence," said the 21-year-old Riske, who will face Urzula Radwanka in Australia. "I worked with [physical trainer] Pat Etcheberry and I've never been so sore in my life. But it was awesome. [The players] became friends. It was competitive, even in fitness, where I'm saying to myself: ‘If they can run that fast, I should be able to run that fast too.’"
Hampton attended Riske's final qualifying win and sat beside USTA coaches Tom Gullikson and Ola Malmqvist.
Nine Americans will play matches on Monday, including Kuznetosov, who draws former Australian Open champ and world no. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain; Kudla, who will go up against Germany’s Tommy Haas; and Lepchenko, who will confront 20th seed Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia.