Commentary

Ryan is hope for future of U.S. tennis

American fans have been let down before, but Harrison sure looked good at the Open

Updated: September 4, 2010, 11:51 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- For so long he was outrunning his inexperience, outrunning the fact that this stage and pressure were brand-new to him.

Eighteen-year-old U.S. Open American qualifier Ryan Harrison was smacking 130 mph bombs down the service line, swooping in to slam overheads on the run, launching himself into two-handed cross-court backhands and occasionally causing his older opponent, 24-year-old Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky, to flinch by playing serve-and-volley tennis, of all things. Harrison dragged Stakhovsky into a fifth set, then a tiebreaker after that.

Harrison could reasonably fall back on the excuse that he's too young to remember when dinosaurs like serve-and-volleyers still roamed the power-scorched tennis landscape. But watching Harrison nearly scratch and claw his way to his second upset in two matches in front of a shrieking, clapping, standing-room only crowd Friday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center made fans wistful for a lot of things besides net-charging tennis -- including how it feels for American tennis to have just found someone to pin a few hopes on after all.

Harrison looks like that guy now.

That wasn't such a sure feeling at the start of this tournament.

But that was before Harrison -- who's ranked 220th in the world -- upset 15th-seed Ivan Ljubicic, a popular 31-year-old Croatian, in his opening match and then followed it up Friday by nearly closing out Stakhovsky after rallying from a break down in the fifth set to force a tiebreaker. Once there, Harrison reeled off five straight points and actually had -- then squandered -- three match points against Stakhovsky, one of them on a mortifying double fault to go down 7-6, before Stakhovsky cashed in the only match point he got for a 6-3, 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 win.

Ryan Harrison
AP Photo/Paul J. BereswillThe crowd was behind American teen Ryan Harrison at the U.S. Open.

The four-hour, 13-minute match was the first five-setter of Harrison's young life, and easily the most scintillating match of the Open's first week thus far.

By the end, most of the foot traffic in the plaza outside the Grandstand Court where Harrison and Stakhovsky were playing had slowed to a near-standstill as fans who couldn't sardine their way into the match stopped to watch on the huge outdoor video screens.

What they saw was a haymaker-filled fight that had everything: great dashes by both players from the net to the baseline and then back to the net again; escapes from 0-40 holes to hold serve; stretch volleys and great passing shots and unbelievable gets that forced both Harrison and Stakhovsky to stop, take a breath to compose themselves, then re-set their minds for the next point. And the next …

Stakhovsky rallied despite seeking treatment for an achy back at one point.

The way young Harrison nearly won after surviving two rain stoppages, as well as two rackets he cracked on the court in anger, was impressive, too.

Knowing time was running out for him in the last set, Harrison kept pushing, pushing, pushing Stakhovsky for an opening until he'd dragged him to triple break point in the sixth game. But Stakhovsky roared back twice to deuce, only to slap consecutive forehand volleys into the net to set up another break point. And this time, Harrison didn't miss. He raced right to left along the baseline, stopped on a dime just before the far left corner and bent into a deep crouch, then sent a backhand sizzling down the left line, past a helpless Stakhovsky and in, staple-gunning down the far end of the court.

It was fearless, it was clutch and it's not going too overboard to say it was a display of the sort of gall and put-away shot a player needs if he or she has any real pretensions of ever going anywhere in pro tennis.

Harrison again and again came up with the goods. Before long, the pro-American crowd was chanting the teenager's name -- another career first for him.

Afterward he laughed and admitted being carried along by the electricity.

"I can't remember the last time I was jogging off that late in the match after changeovers," Harrison said. "Winning builds confidence. Confidence builds winning. … That's what I take from this. Right now I'm pretty confident in my abilities."

One of the storylines leading up to this U.S. Open was how American tennis is in a state of decline and no one is sure if it will bounce back any time soon.

Of course, such pessimism can happen when everyone stares at a women's bracket that was suddenly without injured Serena Williams and a men's bracket that lost American Andy Roddick on Wednesday, two days after Roddick turned 28.

When asked before the Open about America having no man ranked in the top 10 for the first time in 30-some years until he sneaked back in at No. 9 just recently, Roddick didn't sound likely to lead any resurgence. He said that perhaps the responsibility is up to some of the younger Americans who had never been in the top 10 before.

Harrison seems to have been listening. He's said that he's talked to Roddick often in the past few years, and that Roddick -- who won his first and only Grand Slam title here at the Open as a 19-year-old -- has helped him with advice. Harrison is the son of a college tennis player who played briefly on the pro tour. He grew up in Shreveport, La., before relocating to Texas to train at John Newcombe's academy, and then moving onto Nick Bollettieri's academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he remains now. He turned pro at 15.

Though disappointed in defeat Friday, Harrison already had enough perspective to appreciate the significance of what he'd just done. He reminded everyone how he'd only played his way into the main draw after surviving a second-round qualifier match in which he was forced to serve underhanded for a stretch because he was suffering from cramps in the furnace-like heat.

He'd outlasted Ljubicic and nearly Stakhovsky, too. Still, he was humble. Laughing at himself now, Harrison pointed out: "This is the 'breakout' run of my career and I'm out in round of 64. I've got to keep working, keep working to improve."

Then he sighed happily and added, "But it's been a great experience."

How good can he be?

"I've never been one to say top 10, top five," Harrison answered. "[But] I've always had the mentality that I've wanted to be the best, be at the top, to win Grand Slams."

That'll do.

America has just met its next great tennis hope.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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