Ryan Harrison may have spent most of his young career thus far knocked out flat on his back, but the 22-year-old who looks like Huck Finn on a weight-training program keeps gazing at the stars.
Wednesday in Acapulco, Harrison punched through with his first win (in 23 attempts) over a player ranked in the top 10, Grigor Dimitrov. And then Thursday, he slowed down Delray Beach champion Ivo Karlovic in a 7-6-in-the-third barnburner to reach the semifinals. But the gregarious Louisiana native wasn’t thinking prudently or extolling the virtues of taking his career one step at a time.
“I want to be the best tennis player in the world,” Harrison told the press after eliminating No. 3 seed Dimitrov in the second round at Acapulco. If this were anyone other than Harrison, that might sound presumptuous -- or at least deserving of the reply, “Keep dreaming, bub.”
But this is Ryan “All-In” Harrison. This is the guy who’s so sincere in his desire to be a great player and so intense in his pursuit of success that you may want to grab him, give him a shake and tell him there’s more to life than being a great tennis player. But if you did that he’d probably just look at you as if it was you, not he, who’s got a screw loose.
“It’s one of those things where you care about what you’re doing,” Harrison went on, trying to put his motivation into proper context. “You love what you’re doing, and you want to be the best.”
If anything, that burning desire in Harrison might have been something of an impediment once he hit a wall in his career. The more you want something, the more you may be apt to tie yourself up in knots if you fail to earn it, or if getting it seems to demand more than you can or want to give.
Harrison approached the elite ATP level highly regarded and beaver eager. He was articulate, expressive and seemingly mature beyond his years -- to the point where his U.S. Davis Cup teammates couldn’t quite decide if he were the smartest, or most annoying, teenager any of them had ever met. Harrison earned his first ATP ranking points at age 15 in 2007. In 2010, he became the first American teenager since Andy Roddick to beat a top-20 player.
In 2011, Harrison was the second youngest player in the top 100 (behind No. 42 Bernard Tomic). Harrison reached his career-high ranking of No. 43 in July of 2012, but the wheels began to fall off shortly thereafter. From mid-July on, he won just two singles matches the rest of the year.
Harrison has often played well but lacked the mental strength and/or composure to win, struggling to keep his mind on the task at hand. This year alone, Harrison has pushed three of his four losses (in five events thus far) to three sets. His Grand Slam efforts have produced a fair share of clunkers, as well as an unforgettable loss in the second round of the 2010 US Open (for which Harrison had to qualify). He lost a wildly entertaining five-setter on the Grandstand court -- 7-6 (6) in the fifth -- to No. 36 Sergiy Stakhovsky.
Harrison said in the interim he lost his way, that he listened to too many voices and often worried overly about what others were thinking. “You can’t worry about what everyone is going to say or think,” he said. “You just have to get yourself organized. Hopefully everyone can see how hard I’m working and how much I want to get to the top.”
To that end, Harrison recently re-hired a former coach, Grant Doyle. He’s also been aided considerably by his neighbor in Austin, Texas, Andy Roddick. “When I’m home, Andy hits with me, pretty much every day,” Harrison said. “He advises me. He keeps me organized. And he’s doing it for no money. Nothing.”
Unlike his protégé, Roddick always knew what he had to do to win and he avoided trying to do things that were beyond his reach. Some of his match management skills may have rubbed off on Harrison. When he fell behind love-30 in the first game of the final set against Dimitrov, Harrison recognized the “pivotal” moment. He had surrendered an early break that enabled Dimitrov to win the second set. Harrison knew that another early break would be equally disastrous. He rallied his resources, held, and never lost another game.
This win was especially poignant because Harrison was up against another heavily publicized former prodigy. The 23-year-old Bulgarian has achieved considerably more spotlight than has Harrison, but this is a year in which Dimitrov needs to consolidate his position after starting 2014 ranked outside the top 20. After the match, the defending champ in Acapulco gritted his teeth and admitted, “It was a bad loss for me.”
Both these young men might do well to study the approach of the tournament’s top seed, Kei Nishikori. At 25, Nishikori may seem like the elder statesman among the ATP’s promising youngsters. Already ranked No. 5, Nishikori is within striking distance of both No. 3 Andy Murray and No. 4 Rafael Nadal. More important, Nishikori, the 2014 US Open finalist, has fully backed up that somewhat unexpected result.
Nishikori is 22-4 since Flushing Meadows, and he’s embraced and mastered the pressure that comes along with status as a top seed. Just two weeks ago in Memphis, Harrison qualified for the main draw, won a match and pushed eventual champ Nishikori to the limit in a three-set loss.
That was the kind of match Harrison will have to win more often if he hopes to realize his ambitions. It’s one thing to keep looking at the stars and quite another to reach them.