Sunday, August 2, 2015

CITI OPEN: RYAN HARRISON TEMP'RING WITH EXTREME COMMITMENT

The scoreboard will leave one with the impression that a match was much more straightforward than it actually was.  That wasn't the case yesterday, when Ryan Harrison won a gilt-edged encounter with Brazil's Guilherme Cezar, a three set encounter in the all to familiar suffocating heat of Washington,  DC in July.  There were ebbs and flows to that match, and after starting solidly, Harrison lost his way in the second, only to recover and win the third by a two-break margin.  The crowd were squarely behind him, and in the cauldron of Grandstand 1, where each successive row of seats elevates precipitously like a bare-knuckle boxing venue, so that all spectators feel they have a clear view of one players triumph, and his opponent's demise, Harrison prevailed.

But the score today, in the Stadium court, in his second qualifying round encounter with Mischa Zverev, a not untalented German (by way of Russia) prospect who has himself struggled with the weight of expectations placed upon him by others, gives no inkling as to the gritty resistance in which the (still very) young American persevered.  And like the undercurrents of the Potomac river's tidal basin on the National Mall, the still waters concealed a dynamic, but unseen struggle.  That Harrison has been seen as the heir apparent to Andy Roddick, the most successful American tennis player of the last 15 years, must surely have been a burden on his broad shoulders.  Perhaps some of that expectation, imposed indiscriminately, and internalized willfully, have done as much to interrupt what (I still believe) will be an eventual ascent to the upper echelons of the ATP tour.  But today, it was the internal struggle, against the weight of expectations he places on himself, that Harrison prevailed, and this is the most encouraging aspect of what could just be the beginning of the second stage of his career.

Having won the first set by a comfortable break of serve, Harrison looked to be on his way to an easy and certain victory.  And having broken in the first game of the second set, the level of expectation in the crowd created a subdued atmosphere, where the spectators impatiently awaited what seemed to be the inevitable.  But Zverev, who had to that point been playing with a subdued level of effort, went up 0-30 after flattening his forehand up the line and aggressively gambling on the resulting reply being manageable.  Despite his excellent movement for a player of his stature, Harrison was unable to resist and immediately gave the break back.

This most certainly would have elicited an internal, self-inflicted chiding, and having suffered the ignominy of having to qualify in the first place, on the heels of his elaborate victory the day before, it would be understandable if he suffered a let down in focus.  But Harrison broke back immediately in the 3rd game at the second time of asking, a rarity in men's tennis.  This emotional elasticity, a characteristic that has escaped him in the last couple of years, was as refreshing as it was encouraging, and having reduced the emotional impediment, the breadth and quality of his game shone through.  Later in the set, Harrison was up another break, serving for it, but had gotten himself into some trouble down 30-40.  Easily distracted by the sound of a radio blaring from the press-box, Harrison turned and gesticulated with some irritation, and asked for it to be turned off.  It was, but he promptly served a double fault any.

This too was another ready-made opportunity for him to come apart at the seams.  And having worked his way back into a second set tie-break for the second day in a row, he could have been forgiven for wondering if the curse of Yogi Berra's "deja vu all over again" hung above his head like the sword of Damocles.  But that's when another beautiful thing happened - Harrison played a tight tie-break, with no unforced errors, and a running two-handed backhand pass up the line to set himself up for match point against the German.  The match was settled with a hard serve wide in the ad court, a triumphant fist in the air, which replaced a clenched one thrown down earlier in the match, when he obliterated his racquet having failed to run down a drop shot to his backhand side.

The mental game in tennis is frequently overrated - no matter how much you want a victory, or  believe in a victory, at the end of the day, a deed must be done in order to claim it.  And because tennis is a zero-sum game, where each and every unit of competition in the game has one winner and a commensurate loser, a player's mental comittment to competing is not measured in how much they want to win, but in how willing they are to set aside all those little agonies of defeat along the way to the ultimate victory.  As such, there is one element of the mental game that is critical to every match, and that is a players willingness to commit to intensity, in the most scientific meaning of the word - as in focus and concentration.

In the past, when asked about Harrison, Andy Roddick (a mentor of sorts) indicated that his high level of expectation might be just what the American, and American tennis players in general, need to again pervade the ATP tour.  But I myself have wondered if the level of expectation Harrison has for himself has been more than healthy.  The excessive impatience with certain umpires, line judges, and at times members of his own entourage, to me seemed like a kind of overflow of what was going on inside of himself.  I don't know him well enough to be certain, but he wouldn't be the first person to expect so much of himself that the associated anxiety was displaced onto others.

That's why I come away from his first two results of the 2015 Citi Open for Ryan Harrison with a feeling that this could be the beginning of a very good period for him.  Each victory under the cloud of adversity builds a tolerance that will serve him well going forward.  The devil is in the details, and there are always areas for improvement, but the infrastructure of a formidable game of tennis is (and always has been) there.  Having to play tomorrow for the third day in a row (once again during the day time, no less), may be a bit much to ask of him, and even if he can get through that match, he has the #2 seed, Kei Nishikori, waiting for him.

But the summer is long, and the US Open is on the horizon, and based on the arch of Harrison's progress, that event figures to be the end of a second beginning for his career.
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