Possibly the unluckiest man in tennis today is Devin Britton, a baby-faced 18-year-old from Mississippi who will face Roger Federer in the first round, which happens to be his very first professional tennis match. Among the many statistics that could make Britton shiver, Federer hasn’t lost before the semifinals of a Grand Slam in over five years.
Britton’s first go at the main draw at the Open follows a great run in Flushing Meadows last year, when he became the first qualifying wild card ever to make it to the junior finals. Britton earned his wild card spot this year by winning the 2009 NCAA men’s singles championship as a freshman at Ole Miss. He’s the youngest college champion ever, and capped the win with the announcement that he was dropping out and going pro. His coach at Ole Miss, Billy Chadwick, is supportive of the move, and confident in Britton’s abilities against Federer. “He’s going to be nervous,” Mr. Chadwick told the Clarion-Ledger. “That’s a given, but Devin is that rare individual who does not show the pressure. There’s something about him that thrives on pressure…If he plays as he is capable, people will see some moments of sheer brilliance from Devin. People will see a star in the making.”
One of Britton’s Facebook fans wrote on his wall, “Watch the 1987 Peter Doohan, Boris Becker Wimbledon match. Good motivation!!,” referring to the match in which the unseeded Doohan upset top-ranked Becker–going for his third straight Wimbledon–in the second round. Britton might look to Becker for another reason, too: the German redhead was one of the game’s iconic serve-and-volley players back when serve-and-volley was king, whereas Britton, also a serve-and-volleyer, now upholds a dying art. (Though some, including fellow American Mardy Fish, still use it as an integral part of their games.) Even stranger than Britton’s use of the strategy is that he developed it while training for years with Nick Bolletieri, one of the great proponents of power baseline play.
As for Federer, he compared what Britton must be feeling to his own 1998 matchup against a star:
“Well, I went through maybe something a little bit similar when I played Agassi when I was 17 in Basel, in my hometown where I used to be a ballboy…I thought people were kidding me when they told me I was playing Agassi…I was in shock, but you try to enjoy it and try to put in a good fight. This is a bit different, this is a Grand Slam. Best-of-five-set match, maybe something Britton has never played before, but I think it’s a good thing in tennis is you always have a chance. Doesn’t matter who you play, where you play. If you think the guy’s not to make a game is absurd. That’s how tennis is. You have to be very careful. I have to make sure I put in a good performance.”
Britton himself is realistic about his prospects. A few days ago he told a reporter, “I’d love to play a night match. If I’m playing Roger at the Open I may as well get the full vibe and really soak it up.”
Well, he won’t be getting the night match–he and Federer will play during the day session–but the U.S. Open? On Arthur Ashe? Versus Roger Federer? If that isn’t the full vibe, I don’t know what is.