Ryan Harrison doesn’t look like a tennis player. With that floppy hair, flush face, boxy frame and baggy polo, he looks like a freshman jock in college. Maybe a middle infielder for Seton Hall.
But for a couple hours on Friday afternoon, he absolutely owned the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The USTA wisely decided to put him on the Grandstand, a tiny, loud and an intimate court that shares real estate with Louis Armstrong Stadium. It’s not so big and intimidating to scare Harrison right off the court, but it’s loud enough to give a player an experience he’s never had before.
The match-up, on paper, was a great one: On the one end there’s Harrison, with his southern accent, an 18-year-old American; on the other, you had Sergiy Stakhovsky, a gangly Eastern European who no one ever heard of yet (amazingly) held his own for more than four hours.
The fifth set, which Stakhovsky eventually won in a tiebreak, was riveting stuff. That stuff you always seem to get at the U.S. Open, but we haven’t seen enough in the first five days. It was complete with breathless back-and-forth rallies, athletic shots and did-you-just-see-that winners. Harrison plays an inventive game that’s full of variety. The crowd loved it. There were lots of Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! (to the tune of Rudy) chants and Let’s Go Ryan (to the tune of Let’s Go Rangers, clap-clap-clapclapclap).
Harrison was everywhere: twisting and turning, running to the net and then backpedaling to the baseline to catch up to a lob. He was up three match points in that last tiebreak, and it seemed inevitable that he would wind up in the third round. He lost the next five points (and the match) in what felt like 45 seconds of dizzy play. It was a shame.
The only problem is Harrison’s game–lots of variety filled with slices, volleys, net play–is that he made far too many errors (73 unforced errors for the match) to fit that style of play. For variety to work out, you’ve got to play as clean as possible. His play at the net was, occasionally, erratic. He doesn’t quite seem like a Melanie Oudin (a fun player to watch, but limited by her body and her skills), but he does have some work to do.
“It was incredibly fun,” he said.
He described himself as a “tennis fan, a tennis freak” and the experience of playing his home Slam was “incredible.”
“My ranking is 220 in the world right now, and I’m trying to hopefully get to the top 10,” he said.
We’re looking forward to seeing him next year.