You never know exactly when a kid is going to show you something. This past March, I sat on a deep outside court in Indian Wells and watched Ryan Harrison try in vain to keep the ball in the court during the first set against Ivan Ljubicic. I wondered exactly what Harrison did well. Last week, making the rounds of the qualifying tournament, I watched as Harrison lost the first set to a David Nalbandian lookalike. I wondered again what the buzz around the 18-year-old was about. He didn’t appear to possess anything that the two-hand-backhand Bollettieri assembly line hadn’t thrown at us before.
So count me triply, and happily, surprised: surprised to see that Harrison was in the main draw at all; surprised to see him beat Ljubicic by playing a wide variety of shots that I had no idea he owned; and surprised today by the intelligent way he picked his spots well enough to remind us that old-fashioned net-rushing tennis can still get the job done.
Oh, one more surprise: The kid, at half my age, seems to be about twice as mature as I am.
Approximately 10 minutes after losing three match points—he only squandered one of them—in a fifth-set tiebreaker in front of a roaring Grandstand audience, the Louisiana teen was asked to assess what the whole experience had meant to him. He sounded like he’d been considering it for 10 years. “Looking back on it,” Harrison said in his drily articulate, earnestly enthusiastic way, “it was a great experience. My ranking is 220 in the world right now. So I feel like one match doesn’t make or break that. It’s the experience of playing these matches that is really going to help me get there.” Really, he’s 18? He sounds 35.
Prodigies, even American prodigies, come and go; great Grandstand matches come and go. What’s exciting about Harrison for tennis fans is the way he plays. Despite the two-hander and the factory-sealed topspin forehand, Harrison is a legitimate all-courter. I wasn’t so sure about that to start this match. As he was losing the first set, I kept wishing that Harrison would cool it with the serve and volley. He wasn’t winning points with it, and in general didn’t seem rangy enough to play that game yet at this level. But he kept at it, and by the fifth set I had to admit he’d used it well.
“I don’t want to be exclusively a serve and volleyer,” Harrison said—drily, intelligently, earnestly, enthusiastically all at once. “I served and volleyed an incredible amount today just because the guy had a one-handed backhand, and he was chipping a lot of ’em [yes, he said "’em"].”
I’ll need to be convinced that a player with a two-handed backhand can be a truly effective, full-time net-rusher. Has it ever been done at the top leve of the game? Connors, perhaps; though he did it in ultimate blue-collar style by keeping two hands on the racquet even when he was at the net. Murray could do it, if he had the mentality. Borg came to the net more often than we remember, but that was hardly his strength. The bottom line is that the transition from two hands to one, from one grip to another, from one part of the court to another, isn't an easy or particularly natural one.
At the same time, I’ve always believed that a serve-and-volleyer can dominate again, even in the teeth of today’s returns, as long as he or she was raised to play that way from the start. This seems to have been the plan that Harrison and his father, a coach at Bollettieri’s, have used. He was committed to it from the start today not just because he thought it would work in this match, but because serving and volleying takes years to learn, and you have to commit to it for the long haul—you can only learn to do it under pressure by doing it under pressure.
Harrison may also grow into the style. His father is something like 6-foot-4, which should take care of the ranginess he’ll need at the net. But the athleticism is clearly there. He lost to Stakhovsky today, but Harrison provided most of the thrills, from a Federer-worthy passing shot off a lob to numerous improvised daredevil overheads hit in mid-leap.
The other elements are in place: Harrison’s two-hander gives him a strong return, he’s a natural scrambler and hustler, and he doesn’t just belt the ball blindly from the baseline—he used the mid-rally moonball to back his opponents up in both of his matches here. Two potential issues cropped up today. Harrison has a tendency to overhit his forehand return; more important, he has a temper. But I liked the fact that he reigned it in as the match progressed. And guys like Borg and Roger Federer both did pretty well once they conquered their considerable teenage rage.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The most I’ll say is that I liked what Harrison showed us this week—he’s one to watch, simply for the way he plays. And he’s one to listen to as well. Afterward, the kid brought all of us hungry American journalists down to earth and put his 2010 U.S. Open in perspective.
“I’ve always had the mentality where I wanted to be the best,” Harrison said near the end of his presser, “and I’ve always wanted to win Grand Slams. But with that being said, it’s a ways away. You know, this was the breakout run of my career, and I’m in the round of 64, you know.”
How old is he again?