NEW YORK—The most remarkable thing about Noah Rubin when he walked on court for his first match at the U.S. Open on Tuesday was how unremarkable he looked. At a wiry 5’9”, and weighing in at the the proverbial “buck fifty”—150 pounds—Rubin appeared suspiciously like a normal person as he began his warm-up. From a physical standpoint, "normal" is not a good thing in tennis at the moment. One look across the net at Rubin’s opponent, Federico Delbonis, told you why. The 23-year-old Argentine is listed at 6’3”, 194 pounds, but he appeared much more hulking than that. Yet Delbonis is just par for the course on the ATP tour in 2014. Walking around the player lounge at a tournament these days is like walking among a new, very large and very tan, super-race.
Today Rubin, an 18-year-old from a town down the road on Long Island, got a taste of what life will be like as he tries to evolve and join that race. He may not have the size, but he does have the tan. That could be because it’s been a long and stunningly fruitful summer for this student at John McEnroe’s academy in New York. Rubin surprised the junior tennis world last month when, unseeded, he became the first American since Donald Young in 2007 to win the Wimbledon boys’ title—beating, along the way, two highly touted U.S. kids, Francis Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov. A month later, Rubin proved that run was no fluke by winning the 18s title at Kalamazoo. With that, he earned the wild card that landed him on a crowded and humid Court 13 at the Open today, for his second career ATP match. This was bound to be, as they say, a teachable moment.
It took less than a minute for the boy’s world to collide head on with the man’s. Delbonis, ranked No. 66 and with a win over Roger Federer to his name, may appear larger than he’s listed because everything about his game is oversized, from his too-high ball toss to his windmill backswing on his forehand. And the first few serves and forehands that Delbonis hit must have felt oversized to Rubin. For three games, Rubin struggled just to find the time to take a full cut at the ball. He was lunging, leaping, and reflexing every ball that rocketed toward him. After the second point of the match, Rubin took a few extra seconds to bounce the ball at the back of the court as he prepared to serve. It was obvious he needed to recalibrate right away.
“It’s completely different sports,” Rubin, currently ranked No. 585, would say later when asked about the differences between the pros and the juniors. “The pros, they’re doing it for a living. Been out here for so long. The experience is at a different level. Fitness is at a different level.”
Rubin would eventually find a little more time to take his cuts, and he would find his way into the match. His father, Eric, a banker and tennis nut who was cheering “That’s it, Noah!” from the second row whenever he had the chance today, says that his son’s biggest asset is his head, and his ability to find ways to win—Noah, after all, has been playing more powerful opponents his whole life. And you could see his upsides today, even in defeat. Rather than panicking, Rubin took his time and did his best to adjust. He showed that he could knock off a few two-handed backhand winners, when he had the time to move into the ball. And he showed the skill that had likely won him hundreds of junior matches: Rubin knows how to stay within himself. When he had success today, he did it by giving Delbonis a chance to beat himself.
Later, Rubin was asked, “What did you learn about yourself out there?” He looked down and smiled, and I expected him to say that he had “a long way to go,” or something similarly humble and sarcastic. Instead, he lifted his head and told us, without hesitation, “I learned that I can definitely compete with these guys at the best level.”
So Rubin doesn’t lack confidence or persistence, and those traits have already taken him a long way. But the problem with being a successful junior, and with spending a lot of time in the juniors, is that what works at that level—staying steady, staying within yourself, not making mistakes—is exactly what doesn’t work, by itself, at the professional level. Look down the list of Wimbledon boys‘ champions and you’ll see Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov, but around their names you’ll also see Roman Valent, Florin Mergea, Todd Reid, and Marton Fucsovics.
Rubin, despite his self-assurance, admitted that he has “things to learn.” The question is: Are they the kind of things that can be learned? He struggled to create much today. His first serve, which clocked in around 105 M.P.H. at the high end, lacks pop. His forehand isn’t heavy. His backhand can penetrate when he gets his weight behind it, but it’s not a smooth delivery. And he got tired in the third set.
“Gas was definitely an issue,” Rubin said later. “It didn’t help that nerves were there also. There were definitely points throughout the whole match I could have capitalized on and didn’t. But it’s my first Slam, so we’ll see how it goes.”
We’ll see how it goes. Rubin, with counsel from McEnroe, is going the college route, and it’s hard to fault that choice. He’ll head for Wake Forest in a few days, with the express purpose of developing his body and game to become a pro. Tennis, rather than academics, is the priority. Asked what he was going to be studying, Rubin first said, "Astrology," before correcting himself: "Astronomy, sorry."
Watching Rubin today, I was reminded of seeing a young Paul Goldstein and Donald Young lose early at the Open in the past. Both were junior legends, both were undersized grinders, both went on to be passable, unspectacular pros—neither could make up the power deficit.
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McEnroe, like most people around Rubin, believes in his intangibles—his head, his determination, his self-belief. According to Metro, though, Rubin said that McEnroe expressed a different view when Rubin beat him in a practice match last year.
“I can’t believe I’m losing to this kid, he’s awful,” McEnroe said.
Let’s hope, for the kid's sake, that Johnny Mac wasn't being serious.