In 2008 at the age of 15, Ryan Harrison was the third youngest player to win a tour level match on the ATP Tour in 18 years when he beat Pablo Cuevas at the US Clay Court Championships. He was the youngest American teen to win a tour match since Michael Chang. With American tennis fans clamoring for a counterpart to American ace Andy Roddick, the tennis world lit up with hype and coverage of the Louisiana teen. Expectations were set high, and for several years Harrison seemed ready to realize those expectations early. Four years later, he was in the top 40 and had several notable wins over big name players. There were features on Grantland that wondered if he was the next John McEnroe, interviews with media outlets, young girls screaming for autographs in the stands. What followed was several years of inconsistent play and inconsistent results from the talented right-hander. Social and mainstream media enjoyed recounting the narrative, often to the ire of Harrison.
But over the course of the past two seasons, the often outspoken and frank Harrison has decided to take control of his own narrative and is working to write it with his own slant, in his own words–with his results and play creating the plot and theme to his journey. If the story of his 2016 summer continues throughout the hard court season, the lasting denouement could be one of great success and rankings for the 24-year-old.
Harrison has been on a mad run post Wimbledon, having won seven out of the nine matches he has played during the North American hard court swing thus far. At the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., he reached the round of 16 as a qualifier before losing a hard-fought match to Steve Johnson. In Toronto, Harrison once again advanced through qualifying to reach the round of 16 before losing another tight heart-breaker to world #8 Tomas Berdych. Harrison has always been a talented hard court player. 2015 saw hms start the season with a win at the Happy Valley Challenger in Australia, then followed by a 4th round showing at Memphis, and a semifinal appearance at Acapulco.
Much of this renaissance of his 2016 season is due to improved serving and improved returning, more specifically on the second serve. In Harrison’s upset win over John Isner at the Rogers Cup, Harrison went toe to toe with the bigger serving Isner, firing 13 aces for the match. Along with winning cheap points on his serve, he also generated five break point opportunities against Isner (who often can proceed through an entire match and face no break point chances). Even more impressively, of those five break points, he converted four–the simple yet important difference in the tight match.
In matches that come down to a few break point opportunities, confidence and the intangible factors of the ability to handle pressure, the ability to calm the nerves, and the ability to have a clear path in the stressful moment are where those points are won. Over the past two weeks, Harrison has been adept in those moments, capitalizing on the chances he creates for himself.
Harrison spoke earlier in the year with Kamashke Tandon about his confidence and belief in his game and where those things were heading, ” I’ve won a lot of matches recently and I feel like my confidence in big moments is starting to feel like it’s high…I know what I’m capable of doing. I know I’m capable of getting to Top 50 in the world because I’ve done it. I know I’m capable of getting Top 20 wins because I’ve got them.” Although much was made of his up and down results in 2015, he accounted that to his inopportune injury interrupting the momentum he gained with his success at the beginning of 2015.
With the Rio Olympics casting a long scheduling shadow over the summer hard court season, and many of the top men skipping tournaments like Atlanta, Cincinnati, etc to participate, then wait for the US Open, Harrison has a chance to continue to gain ground in the rankings in the next few weeks. This is also an interesting time in men’s tennis. With the “Big 4” seemingly becoming a big 2, and many other top 40 men facing their late 30s, long breaks from tour due to injuries, and the starting of families, there is much speculation about a potential exodus of sorts over the next few seasons. At 24, the veteran Harrison is still facing the prime of his tennis career. With his recommitting to playing every match “like it’s a Slam final” and his talent becoming more refined and focused, there isn’t any reason to think that he couldn’t capitalize on these factors and become a top touring pro, realizing the narrative of hope and hype that was started by the media so many years ago.