Catching Heat

Monday, July 30, 2012 /by

RHIf you’ve ever had doubts about the sagacity of coaching legend and soldier of self-promotion Nick Bollettieri, consider the comments he made concerning two volatile American players, Ryan Harrison and Donald Young, at the very beginnings of their careers. Asked about Young’s future when he was 16 and the No. 1 junior in the world, Bollettieri was optimistic, but cautioned that DY didn’t react to adversity well, and that “when things don’t go the way he wants them to go,” he would have to learn to adjust. A few years later, when Harrison made a splash with a win over Ivan Ljubicic at the U.S. Open as an 18-year-old, Bollettieri was again asked for a long-term assessment. He zeroed in on what he thought was the most important variable in his future: “the kid's got a temper,” Nick said, in that gravelly way of his. He knew Harrison and his temper well, having seen him up close at his academy for years. Bollettieri said he believed that it could be a big part of Harrison’s success. As long as it didn't destroy him. 

It’s safe to say that, at the moment, Bollettieri’s early concerns for both Young and Harrison have proven well founded. This weekend at the Olympics, Young lost his 15th consecutive match—he hasn’t adjusted well, or at all, to adversity lately—while Harrison made news not for losing his own opening-rounder, to Santiago Giraldo, but for the way he acted while doing it. Harrison, as anyone who has watched the Olympics on the Bravo network over the last two days knows well, slammed his racquet to the grass multiple times and smashed the head in half after double-faulting at match point. 

The hot-headed Harrison was hardly breaking new ground, or turf, in London. This is a guy who began 2012 by stating that one of his goals was not to get fined for bad behavior on court. He knows that getting his temper under control is both something he needs to do, and something that requires a concerted effort. Up until the Olympics, Harrison had generally been successful. Despite letting his racquet go at the French Open and showing plenty of signs of anger during other losses, he hadn’t had to fork over any money to the authorities this season. But he chose the wrong venue to revert to form. After his Olympic outburst, broadcasters Chris Fowler and Pat O’Brien, among others, ripped Harrison for embarrassing his country. The highlight reel that Bravo ran didn’t help Harrison’s cause—it looked like all he did all match was try to deep six his racquet (as much airtime as his stick got, that can’t be what Babolat is paying him for). Finally, Harrison felt bad enough about it that he went on air and gave a near-tearful apology. Which, naturally, got him ripped some more. Mark Hodgkinson of the Tennis Space asked today, “Who is going to apologize for Harrison’s apology?” 

Hodgkinson, citing Harrison’s youth—he’s 20—and the fact that he’s hardly the first guy to lose it on court, believes Harrison had nothing to apologize for. I agree that a televised appearance wasn’t necessary, but I’m glad Harrison apologized in some form. It’s true that he’s young, it’s true he’s not the first offender, and it’s true that U.S. tennis players have been embarrassing their country with their on-court behavior for many years—it’s practically a national tradition by now. It’s even true that there’s some hypocrisy among fans about what we really want to see on court. Call it the train-wreck effect; you may not like what you see, but you can't turn away. When I saw Harrison go nuts in the highlights, I cringed. But when I finally watched the match on tape yesterday, all I really wanted to see was...Harrison going nuts. This time, though, his outburst felt different from those in the past. The fact that it came at the Olympics really did seem disrespectful and childishly reckless, as if he had no sense of where he was (which is too bad, because Harrison has made it obvious how much representing his country means to him). It felt like something had to change with him this time, and hopefully his apology was the beginning of that change.  

Walking an emotional edge is something that we ask all athletes, and especially tennis players, to do. They’re supposed to be fired with aggression and killer instinct. Yet at the same time they can't let their precarious hold on it go. Victoria Azarenka, for one, has struggled and often failed to find that balance. What makes it even tougher for Harrison is that, like Bollettieri said, his competitive spirit may be his single more important attribute. How many times have we, and I assume Harrison himself, heard a pundit say that they like his “fire.” It seems to have become the main reason to believe that he’ll keep moving up the rankings. Yes, Harrison has a strong serve and forehand, but it’s his athleticism and scrappiness, rather than his ball-striking skills, that are typically singled out. Which means he can’t afford to dull his emotional edge too much. But Harrison, who is a sharp analyst of the game, also knows that giving in to his anger doesn’t make him play better. He’s said in the past that if he can show some positive emotion early in a match, it helps him combat the negative feelings that may come later. Obviously, there weren't many positives to hang onto in his straight-set loss to Giraldo. 

Instinctively, I like Harrison—his energy and obvious desire to succeed make his story and his matches worth following. And I like how articulate and level-headed he is off the court. But I don’t like the way he points toward ball kids and orders them around, or the way he seems ready to fly off the handle. It makes me think that he's overcharged, that he tries to control too much, that he lets outside elements get to him. Which may have been the case on the slippery grass at the Olympics.

Any tennis player knows how hard it can be not to break your racquet in half at times. It’s difficult, logically, to ask someone to “want it more than the other guy" and develop what we call a killer instinct, and then turn around and ask him to shrug off a bad shot or a loss, accept defeat graciously, and say, “I’ll get him next time.” But that’s what we ask tennis players to do, and the sooner they learn to maintain that precarious balance, to, as Bollettieri might say, play with fire and not get burned, the sooner they make good on their potential.

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