NEW YORK — You are 11-years-old, and you’re trying to beat your old man on a tennis court. He shellacs you. No mercy. But this is no casual backyard scuffle. It’s for the men’s championship of Shreveport, Louisiana.
“I wanted to win more than anything in the world at the time,” Ryan Harrison, now 18, is saying after causing the first real shakeup in the young US Open. “My dad who had been a good college player, put a good beating on me, and I took it well. I finally beat him when I was 12.”
Now we slide ahead to Wednesday at Hadean Flushing Meadows, littered with bodies of patrons trying to cool down on grassy patches. Ryan Harrison, a sandy-haired 6-footer, is very much Mr. Cool on Court 11, a qualifier ranking No. 220 who removed No. 17 Ivan Ljubicic, 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 6-3, 6-4. You may remember Ivan, the sturdy Croat who destroyed the US in an early Davis Cup round five years ago, and continued ferociously to seize the Cup for his homeland.
Remembering him, too, is young Harrison, victimized by Ljubicic in straight sets at Indian Wells in March where the Croat won the title. Ljubicic was impressed that the kid was “more solid today. He’s 18 and is definitely going to play better and better.
“The weather was my enemy, too. Brutal on the concrete,” said Ljubicic, describing the grave wave of heat well over 110 underfoot. “You get heat not only from the sky but also from the bottom.”
Harrison felt he had an edge training in Boca Raton, Florida, for two weeks — “on court temperature was 125 degrees!”
As the afternoon wore on and the Sweetheart of 2009 — Melanie Oudin — faded away early, beaten by Ukrainean Alona Bondarenko, 6-2, 7-5, is Ryan Harrison the teen-ager to take her place in rousing the home folks as Melanie did in her exciting procession to the quarter-finals?
“I want to be that guy,” says Harrison in discussing who will be the next American gem. “I have a ways to go, but I’m working as hard as I can, and I’m getting a lot of help from Andy Roddick and the coaches under Patrick McEnroe [the US Davis Cup captain and player development boss]. My dad has been a good coach, and has been on me about staying humble and taking every day as it comes. My mother, an ex-school teacher, has home-schooled me.”
His game, well-rounded, includes serve-and-volley (14 points in 20 tries) and stout defense. “I’m comfortable at the net.” (Hurrah). “I can get pretty fired up,” he says, but that didn’t show on Court 11, where he calmly took apart the shrewd Ljubicic, his groundies down the line particularly damaging. One of his 13 aces buzzed by at 139 MPH
“This is my dream,” says Ryan, next opposing Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky, No. 36, recent victor at New Haven. “This is definitely the biggest win of my career, on this stage here, and to take out a top 20 player. I’ve always had confidence in myself, so I’m extremely excited and pleased.”
Ljubicic feels that Harrison was better off playing through the three qualifying matches rather than accepting a wild card. “Ryan got used to the conditions.”
For the US it was an afternoon of coming-and-going: the sterling arrival of Harrison and the flat departure of Donald Young, the great right hope for several years.
Hammered by No. 42 Gilles Simon of France, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, Young couldn’t break serve, blew his two break points. Ranked No. 100, he should have played the qualifying like Harrison instead of hugging a wild card. Patrick McEnroe would like to throw him into the USTA’s tough training program; Young can’t seem to divorce himself from parental coaching control.
Is it too late for him to reform?
Donald says no. Maybe. But his lack of progress makes the American leadership feel doubly good about Harrison. They’re glad he didn’t quit when his old man blitzed him for the championship of Shreveport.