Who to Blame for Failed Prodigy Donald Young? Start with John McEnroe

My column on AOL Fanhouse

The legend of Donald Young is that it all started when a 10-year-old ball boy at a senior tennis tournament in Chicago asked John McEnroe if he would hit tennis balls for a few minutes. McEnroe agreed. They hit, and McEnroe was so shocked at how good the kid was that he went straight to his cell phone, called his agent at IMG and told him to sign Young.

What a story! It tells of a selfless legend, but even more so offers hope that we might be discovered someday, or our children might be. Also, it suggests that Average Joes walking the streets might have greatness.

Count me as a former believer of that story. Now, I’m hearing the story debunked, that maybe IMG had already spotted Young, a marketing dream. Young was a good-looking black kid from a huge inner city, a city with loads of potential corporate sponsors, playing a traditionally white, suburban sport. Could he be the men’s version of the Williams’ sisters?

And maybe IMG asked McEnroe to hit with Young, staging the whole legend.

Donald Young has had enough staging, enough agents, enough John McEnroe.

Way more than enough John McEnroe.

This is the story about a prodigy lost. And there is enough blame to spread all over the place on Young. McEnroe gets my vote for the biggest share, over-hyping him, pressuring him, and getting people to believe too much, too soon. Was it all a marketing plan?

You do not throw a baby into the lake just because he seems comfortable in the kiddie pool. And you don’t seriously label him the next Michael Phelps, either.

McEnroe has a very big mouth, and he is still the most prominent voice in U.S. tennis.

Well, Young lost to Marin Cilic Tuesday in the first round of the Australian Open. A few years ago, Young beat Cilic. That’s when Young was the best junior in the world.

On Tuesday, Cilic won 6-3, 6-2, 6-1. If that score sounds like a countdown, it is. Young’s chances to be a top player someday? Three, two, one. . .


Young is going nowhere. Let’s be honest: he’s smart enough, but isn’t tough enough mentally. He has fantastic hands and touch. But he must have the worst footwork of any athletic pro ever.

Has anyone ever taught him footwork?

Yes, Young is still, well, young. Maybe that’s why I put a question mark after the word “gone” when talking about his chances. But people around his age have surpassed him.

Young is 21 years, 6 months, and ranked No. 129. Cilic is just 10 months older, and ranked 15.Ernests Gulbis and Alexandr Dolgopolov are in the top 50 and just months older than Young.

Kei Nishikori and Richard Berankis are in the top 100, and younger than Young.

No, Young is missing more than seasoning. He has plenty of experience, all bad.

But back to McEnroe and his role in this. I’ve written about Young for years, back to when he was a kid in Chicago, and maybe that’s where my little piece of the blame fits in: Why was I writing about a kid?

We were all duped into belief by McEnroe’s over-the-top proclamations of superstardom.

Was the whole thing a setup by agents? McEnroe compared Young’s hands to his own.

Too often, McEnroe just doesn’t stop to think about the power of his own words. After Serena Williams’ meltdown at the 2009 U.S. Open over a foot-fault call, he recklessly set off a racial debate — as many debates about Serena end up — by saying he didn’t see a foot-fault. I asked him later if he could possibly have seen one way or the other from where he was sitting, or even from the TV angles.

He said he didn’t see for sure.

Yet the damage was done.

Young’s parents bought in, too. But they are adults and made their own decisions. And I’m not absolving Young himself, and his work ethic.

I should have known better. You cannot project a top male player even from his mid-teens, much less the fourth grade.

But Young’s growth process was stunted by all the belief. I have usually sided with Young’s parents, but they did send their little kid off to the pros to get clobbered.

When you watch him now as things go wrong, you see him fold up, start moping, even give up.

In August, a few minutes after he lost a tight match in Cincinnati, Young told me that he was working on never giving up. Really, a professional tennis player has to work on that?

His spirit has been beaten down, battered.

Last we saw from him, at the U.S. Open, the Youngs and the U.S. Tennis Association were trying to create a tiny bit of trust between them.

It has been ugly. The Youngs want to coach Donald, and want the USTA to help financially. The USTA wants to do things its way. Both sides have reached their limits in the argument.

In 2009, Patrick McEnroe, in charge of player development for the USTA, sent a letter to the Young family saying that if Donald didn’t leave his parents, the USTA would cut him off financially.

McEnroe disagrees that the letter was that forceful. The Young’s insist.

Donald told me at the time that he wasn’t going to leave his parents. And then, the USTA did not give him one of its free passes, a wild card, into the U.S. Open. Through 2010, Young’s mother, Ilona, said the relationship between parents and governing body had thawed some.

Young got his wild card. But then Patrick McEnroe picked 18-year old Ryan Harrison, who was ranked lower than Young and had lost to him in the summer, for a final Davis Cup team spot over Young.

In the end, the standoff between Young’s parents and the USTA only serves to waste time while Young still doesn’t know how to get his feet in the right spot.

Young’s time and chances are much like his score against Cilic:

Three, two, one.

Please read my new tennis blog at gregcouch.com. Email me at gregcouch09@aol.com. Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch


About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

3 responses to “Who to Blame for Failed Prodigy Donald Young? Start with John McEnroe

  • Rich L

    Good call, Greg. I’ve read about Young forever, and seen him a few times recently in the Winnetka Challenger event held every summer in the Chicago suburbs. He can’t win that, either … same moping, same lack of mental toughness. It’s frankly tough to watch if you’ve seen him “on” as he does exhibit the great hands and touch you (and JM) note.

    Maybe we can hope for a late-career “awakening” like Mardy Fish has experienced. I’m not holding my breath, though.

  • Ian

    Where is he now?
    Once a junior superstar, and now no one even knows his name.
    Has 0 titles to his name, and best round at a major is the 4th in 2011 and 2015.
    Although he has time, it seems nothing has really changed in the past 5 years.

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