To Be Continued

Thursday, January 16, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

In a way, it was only fitting that the second-round Australian Open match between Donald Young and Andreas Seppi was suspended at two sets apiece. Thanks to the invocation of the Extreme Heat Policy, the metaphorical “to be continued” sign was hung on the umpire’s chair.

Isn’t “to be continued” also the story of Young’s life?

Young has been with us a long time, this stand-offish, baffling, talented but disadvantaged junior champion whose person and game suggest nothing more powerfully than theories of arrested development. It seems like Young was never really a kid, yet he never really seemed to become an adult. 

Is it because of his protective parents? A dazzling junior’s game that never developed the requisite degree of adult menace? A history so rich and long (can you even estimate how many tennis balls this 24-going-on-40 kid has hit?) that in the end it all runs together, Grand Slams and forehands and small towns and courtesy cars and drop shots and room-service menus and the Guadalajara Challenger.

Young hasn’t helped his own identity coalesce, partly because he’s always seemed bewildered by what might be called the “public” dimensions of his life as a remarkable prodigy and aspiring pro, and partly because of wildly fluctuating results that alternately suggest that he’s simply an outgunned, perpetual boy lost in a man’s world.

Still the youngest man to have been the No. 1-ranked junior (he achieved the honor at 16 years and five months) Young has been ranked as high as No. 38, and as low as No. 190—and that was just in a 10-month span in 2012. At this moment, Young is ranked No. 91 but, really, he could be No. 234 or No. 52. He’s not merely a journeyman, he’s a guy with a heck of a long commute. When he feels a little road rage, he can be explosive and dangerous—as Stanislas Wawrinka discovered in the second round of the 2011 U.S. Open, when Young took him to 7-6 in the fifth set before capitulating. 

For pundits and analysts who pride themselves on their understanding of the game, Young also is the problem child of men’s tennis: A riddle, a perpetual enigma who can’t easily be explained or pigeonholed. 

Over four sets on Day 4, Young again demonstrated why all this is so. Yet if you haven’t watched him recently, you might have been surprised by how much this once rail-thin youth has filled out, how different he looks from even 12 or 18 months ago. Young’s tennis kicks once looked as disproportionately large as clown shoes; his legs were thin, but now they’re sturdy. His chest and arms tell of serious work in the gym, countering one of the long-standing complaints that Young just doesn’t work hard enough, either on or off the court, to keep pace in today’s game.

He and Seppi, the No. 24 seed and a crafty, elastic 29-year-old veteran who knows how to goad opponents into beating themselves, went at it hammer-and-tong through the first four games, each man fending off three break points in the second pair of back-to-back games. 

Seppi is a native of Bolzano, high in the Italian Alps. Tennis Channel commentator Jeff Tarango surmised that, as Seppi had spent nine months in the womb at significant altitude, the experience “had to rub off on his circulatory system.” Tarango was speculating on the advantage Seppi might have under the brutally hot conditions, but his lean, 6’3” frame, long arms, and efficient movement might have been an even more potent asset. 

Once again, it looked like Young, who judges himself six feet tall (which seems like a stretch, if you know what I mean), was up against a player of a different weight class. But that turned out not to be the case. And that’s what made watching Young different from so many other viewings.

These close five-set matches usually contain significant momentum shifts that aren’t as easily explained as those in typical three-setters, where the swings tend to break down neatly by set, or in which there is room for only one sea change. In these long-form matches, the games between, say, 4-all in one set and 3-2 in the next can be no less important than the hard-and-fast set tally.

In this one, Seppi had to serve to stay in the first set at 4-5. He was unable to pull it off, as Young mounted a furious charge for the decisive break. The American’s willingness to attack and his ability to stay in rallies were useful assets. He also hit enough blazing winners from the backcourt and enough sharp volleys to alert Seppi that he wouldn’t be able to just push the ball around and wait for Young to make an error.

Young was unable to hold to start the second set, but he tightened his game up and broke right back. Then the momentum shifted dramatically. Seppi broke again and continued to play like a man re-born. He reeled off a hold and a break and soon had the equalizing set, 6-2.

Young averted two break points and stopped the bleeding in the first game of the third set, and his patience and consistency paid off when he finally broke Seppi for 5-3, then served out the set. Young has been much better known for his mercurial, flashy game than for his diligence, but it was the latter quality that enabled him to keep pace in this one.

It was the second significant momentum shift of the match, and this one left Young in command all the way into the middle of the fourth set. By the time Young served with a break lead at 3-2, Seppi looked fried and ready to fold.

Young started that critical sixth game with a double fault—his 13th on a day when his serve was surprisingly useful in spite of those doubles. But then he found a way to shank three different forehands into the ether in a stunning display of forfeiture. 

Young certainly had good reason to be tired, yet the swift way the tables were turned was disconcerting. Worse yet, Seppi fell behind 0-40 while serving at 4-all, but he managed to dodge the bullets thanks partly to two critical backhand errors by Young. Escaping with that game seemed to inspire Seppi to break to seal the fourth set.

Once again, it was impossible to predict if Young was going to triumph or crash and burn. I wouldn’t read too much into whatever happens. Young’s greatest talent may be his ability to complicate what might be simple; his propensity for turning matches into roller-coaster rides. It’s a lifelong habit now. At the same time, he seems to have more game than ever before—greater heft, penetration, and sting on his shots. Is it possible that he’s still a work in progress?

*****

While most of Young’s fans in his home base of Atlanta slept, Seppi and Young returned to the court after a long delay. This time, there was no more time to defer, no more "let's keep an open mind about this." Young put the finishing touches on one of the best matches he's played to win out, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. To be continued...

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