Ditching his hothead attitude paying off for Ryan Harrison


UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It’s difficult to pinpoint just when the chip settled firmly on Ryan Harrison‘s shoulder, but it seems that the former prodigy is ready to slough it off.

A decade ago at 15, Harrison became one of only 10 players in ATP history to win a tour-level match before turning 16. But his adolescent dreams of glory were gradually displaced by frustration and a sense of failure. By the time Harrison hit 21, he seemed locked into a downward spiral. His year-end ranking plummeted to No. 199 in 2014, and his reputation was evolving from that of a fiery competitor into a hothead who, with a little patience, could be goaded into self-destruction.

“If I was giving a scouting report on myself,” Harrison told ESPN.com at the New York Open, “I would have advised the person to just stay composed and patient, wait for Harrison to explode.”

But Harrison has taken great strides toward reversing his fortunes. He’s been striving to control his emotions and play calmer and smarter tennis. He cracked the top 50 in February of 2017, then hit a career high of No. 40 in July. He also won his first ATP main-tour event last year at Memphis, and sweetened the surge by winning a Grand Slam doubles title with partner Michael Venus at the French Open.

Harrison has built on that success this year, with already logging one final at Brisbane. At the Australian Open, he won two rounds before losing to eventual finalist Marin Cilic. The key to his resurgence has been his redefinition of success.

“I wanted to turn it around for a long time, to show everyone — including myself — that I’m not a failure,” he said. “But when you’re trying to do that, every match feels like a life or death affair. I had to change that. I had to accept that success is just doing all that you on any given day. Put in the hard work, compete as hard as you can, implement your game plan. When you do that, it’s a successful day not matter what else happens.”

It’s been a difficult lesson to absorb, because Harrison must live with his temper. It has often undermined his own efforts and also outraged or offended some of his peers and spectators. It’s something he’s had to manage and sometimes battle on a daily basis. “There’s a fine line between fiery and angry,” Harrison’s coach, Michael Russell, told ESPN.com. “The needle sways a few degrees in the wrong direction and he’s in trouble.”

Harrison remains a work in progress, but he’s no longer facing that challenge alone. Last April he married Lauren McHale, a former All-American tennis player at the University of North Carolina (and sister of WTA touring pro Christina). She’s become a rock for him. The USTA has also played a significant role, thanks to a shift in the organization’s player-development strategy under new Head of Men’s Tennis Brian Boland.

The American federation focused for a long time mostly on identifying and helping very young players. But it recently embraced a new initiative to be more proactive with veteran players who are struggling to move up a class or two.

“Our thinking was based on the demands of the pro tour these days,” Martin Blackman, General Manager of USTA Player Development, told ESPN.com. “You see what the top guys have in terms of a team: a master coach, a traveling coach, a physio, a trainer. We decided we could do more for some of our guys who were out there, maybe doing OK, but trying to make it without much support.”

Harrison, now 25, has been one beneficiary of the USTA’s new philosophy. The organization brokered and is underwriting the coaching deal between Harrison and Russell, although the player and coach go back a long way — all the way back to the 2009 Yuba City Challenger, where a then 15-year-old Harrison fought his heart out before yielding to Russell, a legendary grinder, 7-5 in the third set.

“Even then, he fought incredibly well, and his serving mechanics were outstanding,” Russell said. “I knew he would develop real weapons.”

Those weapons include a powerful forehand and one of the best second serves on the tour. But Harrison has yet to take full advantage of those assets by embracing a more vigorous attacking game. “I’m always in favor of being more aggressive and taking more opportunities to attack,” Russell said. “Obviously has success in doubles shows he can handle volleying.”

Harrison isn’t worried about his upside.

“I know what I’m capable of,” he said. “Looking at it objectively, my serve is already top 10. My defensive skills are up there, the ability to create is there. The thing I have to do better is win those gritty baseline points.”

That was Russell’s stock-in trade, and it’s an understandable shortcoming in a mercurial player. In order to overcome it, that self-control Harrison has been cultivating has to stick. He’s making progress, but still there are moments like in a recent first-round match at the New York against fellow American Donald Young, when the two began to exchange words and had to be separated by the chair umpire. Eventually, Harrison regrouped and won the match.

“You wouldn’t want to take Ryan and make him mellow,” Russell said. “You don’t want to wipe out that competitive persona. You just have to make sure it doesn’t turn into a negative.”

It may have hurt Harrison to dive into the deep end of the pool so young, but he’s philosophical about the past.

“It hurt me in that I wasn’t quite ready for all of it,” he said. “But even if you told me at 15 what was to come, I still would have just said,’Bring it on!’ I just wasn’t mature enough. But everybody has obstacles they go through. If I started later I probably would have faced them later.”

Harrison’s hasn’t entirely cleared his obstacles, but he feels he’s getting there.

Bring it on.

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