Commentary

Ryan Harrison's search for serenity

Updated: June 24, 2011, 12:05 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- There once was a petulant teenager whose passion sometimes spoiled his beautiful game. He smashed rackets when the mood seized him, which was often.

But eventually, Roger Federer learned to master his volatile emotions, temper his temper, if you will. He went on to have a nice little career for himself.

Ryan Harrison, one of two teenagers in the men's draw here at Wimbledon, sometimes plays with that same fire, a blaze he can't always control. The International Tennis Federation already has fined him five times this year in three Grand Slam events for a total of $3,700 -- and that's not counting two outbursts Friday that likely will cost him more.

During a loss in the last round of qualifying at Roland Garros, Harrison flung his racket into a courtside tree. During a loss in the last round of qualifying here at Wimbledon, he was tagged with another abuse of racket violation for a less impressive toss.

"He's got to harness that ability," said Andy Roddick, a mentor of Harrison. "He goes a little mental sometimes. That's coming from me, so … for him, I think it's between the ears."

Harrison, a 19-year-old from Bradenton, Fla., managed that space inside his skull quite nicely for most of four sets Thursday against No. 7 seed David Ferrer. On Friday, though, he lost the battle -- with himself and Ferrer, too, in a match that had been suspended because of darkness 6-7 (6), 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.

With the core of elite American tennis aging less than gracefully, Harrison is widely viewed as the next big star. He has a game that is mature beyond his years and some spectacular shots. His want-to, as football coaches like to say, is immense.

[+] EnlargeRyan Harrison
AP Photo/Kirsty WigglesworthCan Ryan Harrison learn to control his on-court rage?

That Harrison -- at the age of a typical college sophomore -- could give one of the world's best players a serious scare was impressive. But don't tell him that. When Ferrer broke him to open the fifth set, Harrison slammed his racket to the grass in disgust -- an act of violence that probably will cost him $800 more when the lords of the ITF convene Saturday morning to discuss infractions. After a soft, sitting volley that allowed Ferrer to race in and smack a forehand winner, Harrison uttered an expletive (an audible obscenity in ITF parlance) that likely will set him back another $800.

"I was starting to get a little frustrated just because I'd already gone down a break after being up two sets to one," Harrison explained later. "I could feel I wasn't playing well. But I tried to take a deep breath and relax and just kind of keep my mouth shut and start fighting, and that was going to give me my best chance.

"Just because you try to do the right things and control your emotions doesn't necessarily mean you're going to win."

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

After each of those qualifying episodes, Harrison was placed in the men's main draw as a lucky loser. In the first round in Paris, he won one game in the first set against No. 5-ranked Robin Soderling but came back to win the second in a tiebreaker. Here at Wimbledon, his reward for advancing to the second round was a date with Ferrer, one of the toughest outs on the ATP World Tour.

Ferrer, 10 years his senior, was impressed.

"Of course," Ferrer said when asked whether Harrison could be a great player. "I like a lot. He was a surprise for me [Thursday]."

It shouldn't have come as a surprise. At last year's U.S. Open, Harrison became the first American teenager to defeat a top-20 opponent in a Grand Slam since Roddick, stunning Ivan Ljubicic.

"I'll give you one word for Ryan Harrison," said Patrick McEnroe, the USTA's general manager of player development. "Moxie."

A snapshot from the first-set tiebreaker underlines this. Harrison was serving for the set at 7-6 but missed his first serve. The second was a bomb, taking Ferrer so wide that Harrison had an easy volley into an open court.

Cocky would be another word. Two eye-opening excerpts from Harrison's news conference:

1. "My forehand is as good as anyone's if I'm hitting it well. On any given day -- obviously I've had some days where it goes off, it goes off more than a guy in the top 10 -- but if I'm hitting it well, I can hit it to both spots, I can hide it, I can dictate with it."

2. "I think I can win this tournament. I want to win it, obviously. Grass suits my game. If I'm serving well, I'm not going to get broken."

What he lacks, he said, is consistency.

"Talking about David, he brings the same focus and attention to every single point, whereas I've checked out a couple times," Harrison said with startling candor. "I don't lose concentration or physically lose effort or mentally lose effort, but it's just like a matter of making sure that every single point that you play is thought out, is with a purpose. Sometimes you can get caught in thinking about the situation and thinking about whatever might happen after the match, just stuff that's irrelevant to the process of winning the match."

At the end of the day, Roddick said, Harrison is a competitor. "I think everything that's going to be tough for him is going to make him better, too," Roddick said, "because he cares so much about winning and losing, which I don't think we've had enough of, frankly, in the States as far as the up-and-coming players.

"It's just a matter of him figuring out a comfortable line where it's not a different emotion every day."

Harrison has heard the criticism.

"I'm a lot farther along than I was six months ago, that's for sure," he said. "There's been a couple times in the last few months where I've snapped. But there's been a lot of matches that aren't at these bigger tournaments where it's televised and people are watching where I've kept my emotions in check.

"I've played every single match I guess over the last two months with the same preparation and the same mindset as far as how I want to play tactically and with my game. I feel like that's improved a lot.

"Mentally, obviously I'm working at it, and it's going to get better."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.