Thirteen years ago, when Ryan Harrison was 11, he reached the final of the Shreveport City Championships -- and found his father, Pat, on the other side of the net. Naturally, the father, briefly a professional player and an elite coach to this day, wound up winning.
That intense passion for the game, the deep competitive drive, passed from father to son and, frankly, sometimes over the years it got in the way. Harrison, whose career-high ranking came nearly five years ago, at the age of 20, has struggled since then to reach his potential.
This is the story of how a Louisiana boy learned to trust himself and those around him and figured out how to harness the outsized confidence that made him successful beyond his years, a hubris that was sometimes beyond his ability to control. Now, when he lashes that all-out forehand, you can see the hard-earned belief that seemed so long in coming.
Harrison, still only 24, has gone from sometimes being his own worst enemy to something almost approaching wise. In the fish tank of professional tennis, where the omnipresent scrutiny can destroy souls, he has grown up.
"When you're sitting in a hotel room, in that static moment, you're not facing the obstacles and emotions you do on court," Harrison explained. "You're not obsessing about what will happen if you don't play well, all those negative thoughts. The trick is to take that peace to the court, and when the massive pressure kicks in, when you feel the nerves coming on, being able to enjoy the moment.
"Embracing it, simplifying things to where the pressure is actually fun. Thinking that by doing my best, I can trust it will be enough."
Easier said, obviously, than done.
But with some painful, albeit impressive, efforts, he seems to have done it. The narrative poured out Thursday in a brutally candid 30-minute interview from Harrison's Memphis hotel room. He could, with all he has learned, probably make a living as a motivational speaker and write a useful self-help book.
Last summer, Harrison was often miserable on the court, disappointing himself and those who had invested so much in his career. His aspirations were to be great, not to be struggling to stay on the tour. In a startling span of seven months, he has achieved what amounts to a mental makeover.
Let's back up a tad, to the time Harrison careened onto the scene in 2008 in Houston, when he qualified into the main draw and stunned Pablo Cuevas in his first ATP World Tour match. Harrison was 15 -- the youngest to win an ATP match since Rafael Nadal did it five years earlier in Mallorca.
He broke into the top 100 as a 19-year-old and at 20 produced a more-than-respectable 23-24 record for the 2012 season. And then Harrison proceeded to win a total of 21 matches over the next three seasons.
The 2016 grass-court season nearly broke him. Harrison lost to young Americans Ernesto Escobedo and Bjorn Fratangelo in qualifying at a Dutch tournament and at Wimbledon. After losing to Frank Dancevic in the first round at Newport, Harrison returned to his parents' home in Bradenton, Florida, where Pat is a coach at the IMG Academy.
"I was at the point where I was within a week or a bad tournament of taking the rest of the year off," Harrison said. "The path I was on wasn't a good one. You could count on one hand the people who believed I could get to where I've gotten in the last six months."
Those few were his family as well as coach Peter Lucassen, who had started working with him a month earlier.
"He was in a really bad place after Wimbledon," Lucassen said. "But he started to put in a lot of work on and off the court. You know Ryan -- he has a strong opinion about things. He had to find a way to be the Ryan we don't always want to see.
"Dealing with annoying opponents, umpires' decisions, not playing the best, using his personality in the best way, an aggressive but positive way. He really turned it around."
Harrison didn't hit a ball for three or four days, but eventually he succumbed to the invitations from his father and younger brother, Christian, who is also a pro. Heart-to-heart talks with them about mental fortitude got him to stop feeling sorry for himself.
"It wasn't straightaway perfect," Harrison said. "The message was, you're still capable of achieving what you want, but you need to be more mentally tough. To me, the biggest thing is learning to accept you're not where you want to be but that you can get there.
"Once you have a hard and focused mindset, setbacks don't feel like the end of the world. You're building toward something better."
Lucassen, who formerly coached Steve Johnson, believed in Harrison. And if Harrison was on the fence, he came to believe in Lucassen's belief. The easily graspable metaphor here is Harrison's forehand.
The nonstop, X-rated mantra from the coach: "Hit your f---ing forehand!"
It's become a running joke between the two, but it serves a purpose. Do what you do best. Believe. It worked quite nicely last fall during the North American hard-court season.
Harrison qualified for the tournament in Washington and won two matches there. He beat Mischa Zverev -- who would eliminate No. 1-ranked Andy Murray from the 2017 Australian Open -- in the second round of qualifying in Toronto. He won two more matches there, defeating John Isner and extending Tomas Berdych to three sets in the round of 16.
Harrison's signature win, the biggest of his career, came at the US Open, where he qualified and then stunned No. 5 seed Milos Raonic in the second round. Harrison lost in the third to veteran Marcos Baghdatis, but it was his furthest advancement in a Grand Slam.
Harrison finished 2016 with a .500 record (11-11), another career first as a full-time player.
Coming into the 2017 season, Harrison found himself enormously excited. He worked out with his father in Bradenton and with Lucassen at the USTA facility in Los Angeles. He also arrived at a solution to his coaching situation.
Because Lucassen worked on behalf of the USTA, he had other duties, including overseeing the rise of Ernesto Escobedo. That meant Lucassen couldn't always travel with Harrison. To fill in the gaps, Harrison hired (at his own expense) Davide Sanguinetti, a former Italian professional who had previously coached Vince Spadea, Go Soeda and Dinara Safina. Now Harrison is covered for the entire season.
Last year, with his ranking down, Harrison managed to qualify for nine ATP events and also played in eight Challenger events.
This year, with a current ranking of No. 62, he probably doesn't have to play Challengers. Still, after winning one of two matches at the Australian Open, Harrison played the Dallas Challenger -- and won -- giving him some momentum going into Memphis.
He defeated No. 3 seed and No. 29-ranked Sam Querrey in the second round and then rolled to his first career title.
There were three talented American teenagers in the Memphis Open field -- the very situation Harrison found himself in five years ago.
What would he tell them?
"When you go on a three-match losing streak, when your ranking drops 20 places, don't hit the panic button," Harrison said. "Keep it stable with the people around you, and work day in and day out to achieve what you want to achieve.
"When you get thrown in the spotlight at a young age, you're subject to so much criticism. Most 20-year-olds are getting drunk in college; people were coming down on me like I was supposed to have this massive wisdom. You can only listen to so many voices [before] it becomes stressful. If I go on a 17-match losing streak, I want those people around me who still believe I can be top 10."
Lucassen sees confidence and a new work ethic, too.
"He's hitting the forehand, trusting it again," he said. "That comes from hard work on the court. In Holland, after losing in qualies, he went out on the court and we hit for another hour. Same thing in Toronto. I can see him being seeded in Grand Slams [top 32] and beating those players.
"He's still young and has a long career ahead of him. He's not afraid of anyone."
There are still those searing moments when the old Harrison emerges. Down 5-2 in the second set of his first-round match in Memphis against Konstantin Kravchuk, Harrison cracked his racket.
And then he won the last five games of the match.
"I was getting really, really whiny, just carrying on," Harrison said. "I made the executive decision to just break one and shut up. Is it a great example for kids? No. Something I'll do every week? No.
"But I think I've developed the mental maturity to the point that it's OK to have emotion -- you just have to handle it in the appropriate way."
Harrison said he believes he can be a top-10 or top-20 player, but when asked about his specific goals, he declined to put a number on it.
Instead, he started talking about his father.
"I've battled with my dad more than anyone over the years, but he's also the person I trust more than anyone," Harrison said. "He's made mistakes trying to teach me the right way, and I've made mistakes not being as receptive as I should be.
"Yeah, I'm starting to get it. I'm focusing on today. I have a burning desire to win, and that's what I'm continuing to tap into."