U.S. OPEN: Is American Tennis Crazy to Bank on Mr. Crankypants, Ryan Harrison?



Ryan Harrison kicks a field goal at the US Open


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.’’

No frenzy in Savannah, either, where he called his opponent, Wayne Odesnik, a weasel (truth is no defense)? Or in Winston-Salem, where he threw his racquet into a parking lot? Or on Monday, when he threw the racquet at least half a dozen times and kicked a ball into the stands while losing to 27th seed Marin Cilic in the first round of the U.S. Open? It was 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 (8-6). On Tennis Channel, Mary Carillo called Harrison Mr. Crankypants.

“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.


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

8 responses to “U.S. OPEN: Is American Tennis Crazy to Bank on Mr. Crankypants, Ryan Harrison?

  • Kyle Hoegh

    Not buying that Harrison plays his best when he’s stewing. Sure he can hit a good return or two after an outburst, but he seems to be consistently in his own head. All he needed was a calm hold of serve to close out both the 2nd and 3rd sets against Cilic. Instead he couldn’t hold is serve or his temper and I believe the former was caused by the latter. It is true that some people can channel anger into focus/determination, but Harrison seems to lose focus more often than not. After some of his outbursts he was hitting serves so far wide when serving in the ad court, the it was hitting mid-net on the deuce court. No way he aims that far left if his head is right.

  • froszty8519

    I realize this guy might be good, but in the long run with this kind of temper we will not get far .. and it’s making me sad to say it, but it’s true. tennis is a noble sport, you give your best on the court, and very rarely you throw with racquets. Yes you express your joy of winning and your sorrows when you lose but not in such an obvious manner ! I say he does not deserve to be considered a good player and we should not put our hopes in him, cause who knows what he could do when he actually looses a final … what will he do then !

  • Gonk Of Gunnedah

    It all depends on how he feels i guess.
    Some people get mad about a situation and then perform better, some people get mad and then let their anger fester and effect their performance in a bad way.
    There is no one way for people to act in life in order to achieve their best results.
    What is likely though is that all the negative feedback from the media and the tennis fraternity about his overt anger will cause Harrison to think more when he is upset and then either showing his anger or repressing it will hurt his game.
    In any case, he is a sexy little fella and charismatic so i hope he becomes an elite player for all of his career.

  • adb

    In an era when violence pervades seemingly everything in American life — on our streets, in homes, at sporting events among players, fans, or a combination of the two — I find the civility of tennis completely appealing. How will younger people ever learn that rude behavior — dissing the competition, arguing with and verbally abusing authority figures (chair umpires), hurling equipment — is NOT the norm? I’ve felt smugly superior to other sports fans who see their players or teams reduced to the lowest, pervasive denominator of rudeness and violence. We talk about wanting to attract kids to tennis because it’s wholesome and has traditions, including respecting the game and the opponent. So when they’re starting their pro careers, it’s suddenly just fine to act like a lout? What kind of message is that???

    Send the kid to charm school.

  • John JM

    I don’t really care about the future of American tennis. Nationality doesn’t matter to me when I’m picking favorites anyway. Not that I’m being uppity, it just never factors in to whether I’m someone’s fan or not. We’ve gone years now without a major-winner to call our own, and tennis seems to be doing all right here. Besides, I’ll still root for my fav players over Ryan Harrison in a match-up. Don’t care that he’s American.

  • Maxshade7

    I think you can bank on him as a top 10-15 talent. You’re right on one point. His backhand return needs some work but that that will improve. His height at 6’1″ isnt too much of a disadvantage. Fed is the same height. Nadal not much taller. Tennis is/has become more about movement than anything else and Harrison can move around. How many players do we have that are bashers that are tall that work out (Querry, Isner)? Lack of power is not the problem. He can adapt. He has multiple game plans. He has a good forehand, good enough to win matches. I dont mind the attitude, it comes with being young and learning to compete on the pro tour. I think whats going to make him is the desire to improve and win and adapt. Remember hes only 19.

  • jt

    Really, we need angry players in tennis to make it more appealing for Americans? So when they go acting like the football, baseball, or basketball felons that will be a good thing, so long as the sport is popular with the US again? The author needs to get his head out of his A. Good results are what will bring the audience back, not childish antics.

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