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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

the Ryan Harrison story

On my first post about this year's Open qualifying, I had asked if Ryan Harrison could actually play, which is never always eager to determine in a first round match. I would have that question answered before the week was out, totally and for sure. 

Harrison's second round match was against Rui Machado, one of those perennial qualifiers, now mid 20s in age, playing some of the best tennis of his life with a ranking in the very low 100s. He's one good tournament, one run to the quarters or semis in a main tour tournament, away from at least being able to enter the main draw at the four majors, as Wimbledon and the US, French and Australian grand slam tournaments are known, without qualifying. And sometimes, if you can do that and get a lucky draw and have a good week, you can make it to the third or fourth round at one or two and be set for a whole year of main draw appearances. A great player, no. But no shoo-in for a Ryan Harison, who's 18 and 100 spots lower in the rankings and still not much tested at the pro level.  To put it another way, the ability to start to at least beat the Rui Machados of the world is one of those tests that a lot of next great hopes never end up passing.

What we learn in the first two sets today is that Harrison can at least play at this level, that he may be #200-something today but that there's nothing to keep him from being at least 150 spots higher. Lots of good tennis, the first two sets are split, these guys are evenly matched and fun to watch. Half or more of the people in the qualifying are not fun to watch on any level. 

But then we learn that Harrison is not ready to contend at this level. 

Even though it's a cool evening with little to tax a player as far as the conditions go, Harrison calls for the trainer a few games into the third set. We haven't noticed it, but he's starting to cramp, and cramp bad, and now we can't help but notice. He is grimacing in pain. He's doing that "hit bad leg with racket" thing that players do.  No way should this be happening tonight if a player is ready for prime time. 

But we now learn that Harrjson wants this win, wants it bad, wants it with every fiber of his being. 

Cramping is usually felt worse on the serve. If you can start to run you can keep running, but you can't push off. So since Harrison absolutely cannot serve, be starts serving underhand like a Joshua Bilmes at summer camp.  He actually wins a game or two like this, there are even signs that he is starting to play through the cramps, which can sometimes happen in the same way that someone does win the lottery. But then he runs all out toward the net to get a ball back, a shot which nobody -- nobody -- in his condition would bother trying to make, and now he has to stop short because he'll run full speed into the fence. Not good.  Why no player in his condition would go for that ball, because now he's totally done for, hobbling back to get ready to receive the next point and getting a time violation warning in the process because he isn't ready to play. 

And somehow, he goes on. 

One rather surprising twist:  it's a perfect night to play tennis and now Machado is starting to cramp and calls for the trainer. Not as bad as Harrison, but Machado is now serving with his arms alone, no real push-off with his legs, so he can't fully capitalize on Harrison's injury. 

And here, we can see that Harrison has better, more powerful strokes than his opponent. Times like this, players try to shorten points by going for winners earlier in the point, as hard in the point as early in the point as you can find any kind of chance to do it. And Harrison can do this sooner and harder. He might be the more hobbled of the players, but he has more heart and more talent and manages to break serve and take the final set and move on to round 3.

This was, for me, like watching the famous Pete Sampras match where he won while throwing up between points. An incredible, dramatic evening.  

This was on the second day of play, when rain delayed the start of play for almost 6 hours. It is possible this put the preparation for both players out of whack, which led eventually to their cramping after two hours of fiercely contested play.

Day three, Harrison has to come back and play. He is none the worse for wear. We hear him saying something like "this is a great set I'm playing" toward the end of the first set. He is being sarcastic, as he is behind and losing a set we know and he knows he should win against a player he knows he should beat. Which he does, he plays a little crisper, and takes the next two sets fairly easily to advance to the main draw.          

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