The future of American tennis threw his racquet into a tree at the French Open qualifying tournament this summer. He took a divot out of the grass court at Wimbledon qualifying. In Cincinnati, he angrily hit a ball over the stands, out of the stadium and into the food court.
“I mean, I wasn’t like out of control when I hit it,’’ he told me at the time. “I wasn’t in a frenzy.’’
“I didn’t break any racquets,’’ he said. “I didn’t say swear words on court. I didn’t really go nuts.’’
Are we nuts to be counting on this guy as a great American hope?
Tennis people seem to think that Harrison’s brain is a problem. That’s not good, because I think it’s his only weapon. His outbursts and racquet-tosses were all over ESPN Monday, and not just during tennis coverage.
American tennis is starved not only for a champion, but also for an interesting one. Harrison is interesting. His outbursts would be ideal to attract U.S. fans. Sports fans who aren’t into tennis feel that the players are all alike, and robotic.
To see a fired-up, good-looking American out there with John McEnroe’s temper, winning majors? That’s a problem? No. It would be TV ratings. It would be the start of a tennis boom. He’s embarrassing? Fine, maybe so. But at least someone is noticing.
Well, that’s the marketing side of it. But what about the tennis side? His temper is the issue people want to look at, but that’s just a smokescreen for his bigger problems: He doesn’t have a backhand return of serve, which might be his downfall if he doesn’t figure it out.
At 6-foot, he’s also not tall enough to play the big bashers. He doesn’t have enough size to take advantage of it. He doesn’t have any weapon at all.
He can play with power, play with touch, hang around the baseline, come to net. He has an amazing work ethic. He moves well. But when someone such as Cilic, tall and able to crush shots at him, plays well, Harrison doesn’t have anything to pull himself out of the jam, other than his guts and smarts.
It almost appears that he’s missing magic, but it’s actually more concrete than that. His only weapon is his mind. Or is that his weakness?
I asked him that, specifically, in Cincinnati just after he lost to Djokovic.
“I play good when I’m fired up, but when I’m in a controlled fired-up mentality,’’ he said. “If you look at the end of the match, there was no drop in intensity, but more of a controlled-breathing, controlled movement and just (controlled) demeanor about it.’’
Controlled temper tantrum? Controlled fire? That’s not an easy concept. And in that second set against Djokovic, he didn’t look controlled so much as defeated.
Someone is messing with Harrison’s head, and as much as we hate to encourage crabby-pants behavior, Harrison seems to be at his best when he’s stewing.
Look, he has been a big success this summer, breaking through with big wins. He beats good players and finds himself in matches against great ones. And when he’s losing to Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, something about his body language says he thinks he belongs. That’s pretty good for a 19-year old, ranked No. 66.
But at least one opponent openly said after a match that Harrison had lost because he couldn’t keep his composure. Basically, we’re trying to decide whether we’re going to find Harrison’s temper colorful or destructive.
At the U.S. Clay Court in Houston this year, I watched him throwing his racquet. And that was just during a practice with a hitting partner.
The tennis world is shaking its head – tsk, tsk — at Harrison. His behavior makes tennis fans feel uncomfortable. But the truth is, too many U.S. players don’t have enough fire, or don’t know how to direct it.
Andy Roddick gets so worked up and jittery that he starts berating officials, line judges, chair umpires. And he can’t get his head on straight until the match is over. Sam Querrey? Earlier this year, he was losing a tight match, and on match point, his opponent seemed to win with an ace. But then the serve was called a let. Querrey shook off the call and said the match was over. He had lost. Later, he acknowledged that he had, in fact, heard the let.
So he just gave the match away?
James Blake loses faith in crunch time, if not his temper. Donald Young mopes.
At this point, Harrison just can’t believe that he’s not the best player in the world.
There are enough robots in tennis already. And these are desperate times for American tennis, as Roddick’s career starts to fade, and Mardy Fish becomes a short-term place-holder. The next generation offers hope – Jack Sock? – but no promises.
Yet one guy out there, one hot-headed guy, was asked what his immediate goals are. This is what he said:
“If I say `Win a Grand Slam,’ that sounds arrogant. If I say top 50, then I feel like I’m selling myself short.’’
Now that’s control. Be careful about trying to rein in the wild. The future of American tennis is relying on it.