Commentary

Buchanan has the right attitude

Updated: September 1, 2009, 12:22 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The good news for Chase Buchanan last month was that he had a slot in the main draw of the U.S. Open due to circumstances within his control. As the U.S. boys' junior champion, he got an automatic wild-card invitation.

The bad news that followed last week was completely random. Buchanan drew a top-10 player, France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in the first round, making an already intimidating situation even more formidable. But the feisty Buchanan, who was named "Most Inspirational Warrior'' at a Marine boot camp where he and other U.S. juniors spent a week in 2007 being broken down and built back up again, doesn't choose to see it that way.

It may be a long way from Kalamazoo, Mich., where Buchanan won the junior title in August, to Flushing Meadows, N.Y., but the 18-year-old is going to try to compress the distance as best he can.

"My backhand down the line is one of my best shots, and he doesn't like that -- he'd rather run around and hit forehands,'' Buchanan said Monday. "And I return well. I'll throw in some serve-and-volley. If I can get him flustered, get into his service games, I have a chance.''

That's exactly the right attitude, according to analyst Justin Gimelstob, who was the last U.S. boys' junior champion to win a match here -- 14 years ago. (When Gimelstob got his official invitation to the tournament, he quipped, "I'm only seven matches away from my first Grand Slam title.'') The U.S. girls' champions have had a bit more success over the same stretch. Lauren Albanese won her first-round match in 2006, and three other American junior champs advanced to the second round from 1996-98.

"If you come to a moment where you can be competitive, you have to believe in yourself,'' said Gimelstob, who was a UCLA freshman when he beat Germany's David Prinosil in five sets in the '95 Open.

Phillip King was just 17 when he won the first of his back-to-back U.S. junior titles and, as his reward, drew big-serving Dutchman Richard Krajicek in the first round. King was up a break in the second set but eventually fell 6-1, 6-4, 6-0.

"You have to approach it as an opportunity to knock off someone big,'' said King, brother of the WTA's Vania King and now a graduate business student. "It's easy for me to say now, but [Buchanan] shouldn't be hesitant to go for everything. If you don't go for enough against these guys, it can be tough. Just go out and have a blast. His whole career isn't going to depend on this match.''

New York isn't an entirely comfortable venue for Tsonga even though his power and versatility would seem well-suited to the surface. He has played here only twice, losing in the third round both times. Tsonga has had an erratic summer hard-court season, losing his first matches in Cincinnati and Washington with a scintillating quarterfinal upset of Roger Federer in Montreal sandwiched in between. But Tsonga is healthy and capable of building up a lot of steam at this tournament.

Like King, who graduated from Duke University, Buchanan opted to go to college rather than try to claw his way up as a professional at this stage. Buchanan entered Ohio State University last spring and went 11-4 in singles matches, playing mostly from the sixth (last) position.

That decision was consistent with the path he has chosen before. Buchanan was recruited by private tennis academies but resisted until late in his teens, when he spent time at the U.S. Tennis Association's facility in Boca Raton, Fla. He grew up in the Columbus area and already knew many of the OSU players and the coach. But the call wasn't easy, and Buchanan said the question of how long he'll stay in school is open. For the time being, he wanted to keep improving and believed his focus would be better in one place than if he embarked on the itinerant life of a full-time fledgling pro.

[+] EnlargeJo-Wilfried Wilfried
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesJo-Wilfried Tsonga's season has been fraught with inconsistent results.

Gimelstob thinks the gap between top juniors and pros has grown substantially since the mid '80s, when American teenagers Aaron Krickstein and Jay Berger each reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Krickstein upset Stefan Edberg and Vitas Gerulaitis on the way, and Berger took down former top-10 player Brian Teacher. Coincidentally, both U.S. players were stopped by France's Yannick Noah.

Berger agreed with Gimelstob, saying the physicality of the men's game is on a whole new level, but said the way Buchanan should approach his match Tuesday hasn't changed all that much since his time.

"Tennis is tennis, and there are things you do well no matter who's on the other side,'' said Berger, now the USTA's Player Development head of men's tennis. "You don't give the player more respect than he deserves, and you earn that respect by making shots.''

Buchanan isn't a total stranger to the gritty grandeur of the U.S. Open. He has hit with Roger Federer on center court, and played in the U.S. Open junior event and in qualifying rounds for the big show. "But that's definitely not the same as this,'' he said, smiling, on Monday. "I feel good coming in. Playing a guy like this is what I always wanted.''

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.