Ryan Harrison wanted to talk, judging by the protracted nature of his phrases. And boy, can he ever talk.
Our interview, conducted over the phone just hours before his first qualifying match in Acapulco, exceeded 40 minutes. That from merely 11 questions. His first response alone lasted an uninterrupted eight minutes.
But Harrison undoubtedly has plenty to discuss and ponder, despite being a novice pro at 22. As he put it, he’s “gone from being a can’t-miss prospect to a has-been five times already.”
His matter-of-fact and, at times, blunt, lingo mimics his mentor, Andy Roddick, and like the retired Texan, Harrison isn’t one to sugar coat.
Harrison’s willingness to chat away from a press-conference setting, where match specifics tend to take up much of the focus, also suggested he wasn’t afraid to face the music. Here was the man tipped to be Roddick’s heir apparent, yet who almost fell outside the Top 200 last October.
Even prior to beating Grigor Dimitrov in Acapulco this week to end an 0-for-22 skid against Top-10 players, the 169th-ranked American was convinced that better days lied ahead. It stemmed largely from reuniting with coach Grant Doyle in the middle of November and working in the off-season with the Australian, along with Roddick, in the latter’s base of Austin, Texas.
“I remember Grant and Andy saying to me, ‘You didn’t lose your ability. You still have the ability,’” said Harrison. “Hearing that from people I trusted and respected so much put a big amount of excitement into me to where I can honestly say I’ve had one bad practice in three-and-a-half months.
“It was the day after I lost at the Australian Open (in qualifying).
“Every day is productive in some way, shape or form, and it doesn’t have to be me playing my best tennis. It’s about me improving every day.”
Harrison said he has left Florida and returned to Austin as his own base, surrounding himself with a steady entourage he is most comfortable with.
“He did a really good job this off-season,” Roddick said in an email. “He was on time, accountable and professional every day like I hadn't seen him before.”
Roddick advised Harrison to hire Doyle in the first place, and less than a year later, in 2012, the Louisiana native with the booming serve and potentially explosive forehand achieved a career high of No. 43 in the rankings.
Their split near the end of 2012 was an amicable one, according to Harrison, and had nothing to do with a slight downturn in results. Tennis Australia made Doyle an offer that Harrison wasn’t prepared to match.
“Not in college, didn’t really go to an everyday high school,” Harrison reflected. “My focus is on tennis and I didn’t really understand how much it was going to cost to get a professional coach. It was far worth the risk of paying the money because you are essentially investing and putting yourself into a position to succeed, because Grant believed in my ability.
“I didn’t understand that as well as I should. I wish I could go back and tell myself how important it was.”
Given that he was still on the upswing back then, Harrison presumably felt his momentum would continue with whomever he subsequently teamed up with.
But as his coaching changes increased, his ranking and belief diminished, not helped by some tough luck. In 17 Grand Slam main draws, Harrison has played Top-40 foes in the first round on 12 occasions, including Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Robin Soderling, Marin Cilic and Dimitrov.
To say Harrison was lost on court wouldn’t be far off the mark.
The nadir, perhaps, was Harrison’s public “blow up” with his dad and first coach, Pat, during a loss to lucky loser Benjamin Becker last March at the Miami Masters. By then he’d aligned himself with the U.S.T.A., where he spent a chunk of time with former world No. 7 Jay Berger.
“I was way too insecure with myself, with my career, worrying about judgement, about media, about all sorts of things that were not going in the right direction,” Harrison said. “Instead of reading all the positive articles, I would read every single negative one and look at it as like a criticism that was really letting it affect me to the point where I actually panicked about it.
“I felt the need to please people to the point where I was hoping they were saying something good about me on TV, hoping they were writing good stuff about me. ‘I hope people think I’m going to be good,’ all that stuff that you would expect not to think about—and the things you don’t think about when you have security and confidence in the direction you’re going.”
Harrison doesn’t apportion any blame to the U.S.T.A. He was unable to cope with switching coaches in different weeks—essentially, not having a full-time traveling coach all to himself.
“It would be easy for me to say, the U.S.T.A. did this, that and the other, but I really feel they were doing all they could to help me get better,” said Harrison. “I had and have a great relationship with Jay.”
If Roddick’s words hint something was amiss with Harrison for a time, not working hard enough didn’t figure to be the cause.
“He worked very hard, a bit of a perfectionist,” Brad Gilbert, a former consultant to Harrison, said in an email. “He needs to relax more on the court, control his temperament, not worry about things he can’t control.”
Berger, who communicates with Harrison regularly and said he is good friends with Doyle, added that Harrison “wasn’t afraid to work.” He expects a revival.
“He has a massive serve, he’s got intangibles that are off the charts, he can hit great shots from very difficult positions,” Berger said in a phone interview. “I think a lot of him. He’s a good kid.
“It’s very difficult to stop guys that know what they want and have the capacity to work—and he grew up working. I push guys pretty hard, but from the time I had with him, he has a very large capacity to work and enjoys it.”
Harrison, even with all that’s transpired in his young career, said he is enjoying life.
He has a “fantastic” relationship with his girlfriend, Lauren McHale—the older sister of WTA grinder Christina McHale—and things are better at home.
“The family situation is much better than it was a year ago with what happened in Miami and the blow up,” he said. “We’re all getting along. We all have faith in Grant and I’m very happy with the process.
“If I have a bad match, play poorly, I learn from it. I’m very secure in knowing I’ll get there, whether it be in two months or a year. I’m going to put myself back in the area I want to be, and it’s going to be fun whenever it’s going to happen.”
He’s confident, then, that his racquet will be doing the talking for years to come.