Steve Flink: Ryan Harrison Back Where He Belongs

Playing tennis for a living is a journey filled with complexities, testing a person's character to the hilt, forcing those who do it to endure the harshest of setbacks side by side with the most exhilarating of victories. Day after day, week after week, year after year, a tennis competitor must be ready to confront a wide range of challenges, to step up and confront opponents of all kinds, to secure success that is enduring and not merely evanescent. It is a fundamentally hard profession, fought out on lonely battlefields, contested under ever present clouds of pressure, leading even the most stout of individuals into inevitable stretches of deep uncertainty. In my view, tennis is more demanding psychologically than any other sport. It is a singularly rigorous endeavor.

A case in point is the admirable American Ryan Harrison, who just captured his first ATP World Tour event in Memphis at the age of 24. Harrison had achieved significantly across his teens. When he was only 19, with his spirits soaring and his sense of the future decidedly positive, Harrison surged to No. 43 in the world. Thereafter, he fell upon hard times, as so many people in his position and profession do. Harrison—who had finished 2011 at No. 79 in the Emirates ATP Rankings—concluded 2012 at No. 70. By the end of 2013 he had slipped to No. 102.

Just as winning can come down to the feeling of the familiar, so, too, can losing. Harrison ended 2014 at No. 190. Although he recovered some substantial ground the following year when he finished at No. 113, that was still not anywhere near the territory where he wanted to reside. His inner doubts were magnified. His sense of self was diminishing. Harrison had arrived at a crucial crossroads. Not until the summer of 2016 did he recover his pride, perspective, perspicacity and winning ways.

I spoke with Harrison both the day before and again the day after his Memphis tournament triumph, and we started with his assessment of what caused him to lose faith in himself during those arduous years starting primarily in 2013. As he told me right before his remarkable run in Memphis, "When I reached 43 in the world in 2012, I was just getting started in my mind. I wanted to be seeded at Slams, to build my record and go after my dreams of being in the top ten in the world and competing for Grand Slam titles. I had this kind of vision of where I wanted my game to go. Then I went from about 40 to 50 to 60 in the rankings. A little bit of insecurity and immaturity and a lack of stability around me caused my game and my confidence to shake. I have always had a burning desire to be great and I don't have a sulky type personality. I am a fiery type guy. When I started to feel the pressure I didn't handle it very well. I got more anxious on the court. I tried to go out there and prove everybody wrong with every match I played. I found myself looking around at who was watching and wondering what they were thinking. Everything you can imagine starts going through your head."

The spiral continued, and Harrison became distraught with his predicament. As he recollects, "There was a point in 2013 where I had gone from 40 to 80 and then later I slipped out of the top 100. I was having to go back and play Challengers again by that point. Panic started to set in because I realized I wasn't on the path I had envisioned. At 19 and 20 you assume you are going to be improving, so for me to have gone backwards that year set off a chain of events that led to my emotions not being positive. I can be a great competitor but I also can be someone who gets so frustrated that I am not able to really compete at all. You find external things to get mad at because you have built up so much tension and energy. I love playing tennis but when you have all that negative emotion in your body it is not fun. That was a real shaking point for me."

By Wimbledon last summer—when Harrison was beaten in the qualifying—he had arrived at another critical point of self evaluation. As he remembers it, "Right after Wimbledon was the last real big moment before things turned around for me because I had spent the better part of two-and-a-half years playing with negative emotion. I wasn't recognizing myself on the court and wasn't playing the kind of tennis I wanted to play. It took a big mental commitment for me to turn it around in the middle of last summer. If you had asked somebody seven or eight months ago if they thought I would have been back in the top 50 right now, they would have said no way is it possible."

Following the disappointment of not getting through the Wimbledon qualifying, Harrison was at an exceedingly low psychic point. "I literally told my Dad, my fiancé and the people around me that I just don't want to play anymore when I am so far below what I am capable of. I told them I did not like the feeling of being a complete underachiever every time I am on the court. Talking to my family and the people who still had belief in me, they said to go out there, keep competing hard and enjoy what I was capable of doing. They told me to stop worrying about all of the excess noise. Those conversations with my Dad, family and team were big."

Across that summer, Harrison rediscovered his zest for the game and his results came around steadily. He qualified for Washington and reached the round of 16 in the main draw, and replicated that feat in Toronto, toppling John Isner in that tournament. He then qualified for the U.S. Open and upended No. 5 seed and Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic in a come from behind four set, second round win on the new Grandstand. Harrison had moved past his woes and had revived his self conviction in the process.

"I started playing really well in Washington," he says. "I won a lot of matches over the summer leading up to my win over Raonic, which was obviously my biggest upset of the whole summer. I also played World TeamTennis and went 8-1 in my nine matches. So I was able to sustain it through multiple conditions and different tournaments over a long period of time leading up to the Open. I just reached a point where I was not afraid to get out there on the court. I started finding comfort and it became a lot more fun. Now it was like a chess match where you are thinking of strategy and shot selection and all of the things that you would hopefully be thinking of all of the time. But that can become very much in the back of your mind whenever you are caught in this negative bubble and only thinking about things like, 'What am I doing out here? What does everybody think? How bad am I playing?' I knew I could not achieve my dreams if I kept playing and thinking the wrong way."

Some close observers of the game who are friends of mine thought that Harrison might get a wildcard into the U.S. Open at the end of that 2016 summer campaign, but that was not the case. But he made the necessity of competing in the qualifying work in his favor.

As Harrison reflects, "Going into the Open, I think it had been over a year-and-a-half since I got a wildcard anywhere. It is kind of normal at a younger age when you are an American since we have a lot of tournaments in the States. I was able to get close to 40 in the world with the help of those wildcard opportunities, which I still got even after my ranking dropped when there was still belief in my game. Looking back, maybe I would have taken a few less wildcards and played some more qualies. But at the Open last year it was more motivating than anything else to not get the wildcard.The reason I thought I might get one was I picked up close to 180 points or so playing the ATP World Tour events. They have a U.S. Open points system where whoever gets the most points in the Challengers gets a main draw wildcard and the guy who won that had like 100 points, so I thought I had a chance."

Harrison dealt with the situation commendably and moved through the qualifying rounds successfully, but not before a brief scare in the first round. "I was down 5-2 in the first set to Cedric-Marcel Stebe of Germany, a good player who had been 70 in the world and was now getting healthy again. If I had been down 5-2 the year before in the first round of qualifying I would have been looking at my box and saying, ' This is sucking now' and ' I can't win these matches.' But I came back and won that match and got through qualifying. That was the epitome of my maturity as a player all coming together, Then I won my first round in the main draw and played Raonic in the second round. I had an early break against him, gave it right back and lost the first set in a breaker. In 2014 or 2015 I would have lost that Raonic match 6, 2, and 2. But I came back and won in four sets because I had the confidence and was enjoying playing on a huge, storied court in the new Grandstand. You find positive things to think about and that is what I did."

The fact of the matter is that Harrison toughened himself immeasurably by qualifying not only for the U.S. Open but eight other ATP World Tour events in 2016. Only Mischa Zverev surpassed him in that category last year. "That was huge," says Harrison. "I started winning all of these matches from tight positions and it starts becoming a habit to do the right thing at 4-4 or 5-5 in the third or serving for a set. I also started winning matches when guys were coming after me in the qualies. Lower ranked guys look at you as a target but I won matches I was supposed to win."

Meanwhile, a sometimes volatile relationship with his father Pat improved markedly as Ryan climbed back up the ladder over the second half of 2016. Pat Harrison has been the central figure in his son's tennis life and he was able at last to work successfully with Ryan and his coaches. As Ryan puts it, "My Dad's involvement was tricky for me to understand, especially at a young age. He was my coach growing up and I have always looked up to him and respected his opinion. But with my Dad not being my everyday coach traveling with me, it was an extremely difficult process figuring out how he could be the most beneficial to me without taking away from what my traveling coaches were doing on a daily basis. It took some mental maturity from me to take all the positives and love and support that my Dad gives me, but also have a stable working relationship with my coaches. It finally reached a point where my Dad's role was huge. Even last summer when I was down at 170 and 180 in the world for a time, he showed he still had the same belief in me as when I was No. 43. My Dad was instrumental in this turnaround I have had."

Pat Harrison spends much of his time working these days with Ryan's younger brother Christian, who is 22. "My Dad is traveling with my brother, who occasionally ends up at the same tournaments as I do. Moving forward I hope that Christian will be at more of these tournaments that I am playing, but there was a period of time when my Dad and brother would wind up at the same tournament as me and it was tricky and at times uncomfortable because at that time my Dad had his ideas of what he wanted me to do on the court and then my coaches had their own ideas with the daily work they were doing. That was when I was 21. As I got older I was able to become my own man and I was not as quick-triggered to snap at my coaches or my Dad or anybody else. Now my Dad and my coaches are working with me on the same page."

Having said that, how much does Ryan Harrison like to weigh in on Christian's tennis? "One of the things I have learned after looking at how me and my Dad struggled is that I am not there everyday with Christian so I just talk to him about having a goal in mind of where he wants to be and how he wants to improve. Every day you play a match or practice is a step toward your goal and if you lose you at least want to know you were making a step forward toward that goal. So what I talk to Christian about is if wants to be a top 100 player, know that you are building your game to get where you want to go. That takes pressure off and you have more comfort because it doesn't feel like every time you play it is the life or death of your career."

Meanwhile, Harrison also has a sister who is playing college tennis at Mississippi State. " Madison is a very good player," he says, "and she was one match away from being All-American last year in doubles. That was a great accomplishment. I am very proud of her."

He is also immensely proud of his fiancé Lauren McHale, whom he will marry in about five weeks. She is the sister of Christina McHale, the No. 44 ranked woman in the world. As Harrison recollects, "I met Lauren when we were both juniors. She was a good junior player growing up and she played at Junior Wimbledon and the Junior U.S. Open. I knew her a little bit growing up and knew her sister Christina well because we did the same junior Fed Cup and Junior Davis Cup teams and that sort of thing. As Christina and I transitioned from being top juniors to playing professionally, Lauren was traveling with Christina over the summer off and on between freshman and sophomore years, when she was taking a year off. We ended up hanging out a lot and for the next three years we stayed very close and we were really good friends. We felt there was some chemistry and knew we could potentially have a future together if things worked out, but she was going to college and I was playing the tour so it could be tough at times because of the distance. But I was frequently seeing her Mom and sister because they were on the tour. After Lauren graduated from college we decided we both wanted to make a commitment and make it work. Now, three-and-a-half years later, here we are."

Asked where they will go and what might change after they marry, Harrison replies, "I don't think we are going to change too much from a lifestyle standpoint because we have already been traveling together. She works in the tennis media industry but not full time so it works perfectly for our lifestyle and relationship. She does not want to take a full time job with a network somewhere in a different city somewhere but if she can continue to pick up gigs where she can work specific events, that would be great because at the tournaments I spend a lot of time practicing and working out and doing different things. So working part time keeps Lauren from waiting on me all day. It is really cool. We are lucky that she picks up enough jobs around the tournaments to stay busy with something she is so passionate about."

Harrison now addresses the subject of starting a family. He asserts, "We look forward to getting married soon but we don't have any immediate plans to have kids. It is one of those things where within a year or two, if it happens, it happens. If not, we are not going to be stressing out about it."

Surely the stability of his relationship with his fiancé is contributing to his revitalization as a tennis player. Harrison finished 2016 at No. 90 in the world. He commenced 2017 with a first round loss in the qualifying at Brisbane but reached the round of 16 in Auckland and made the second round in the main draw at the Australian Open. He then elected to play the Challenger event in Dallas, and swept through the draw without losing a set, cutting down Taylor Fritz in the title round contest.

"Dallas was huge for me," he explains. "From a mental standpoint I have always been more exposed at the Challenger level because it is not as professional as the Tour event level. To put it bluntly, the officiating is very poor and from a fans perspective there are not as many. In the past I would kind of lose my composure at Challengers.I went to Dallas as the No. 1 seed so, to be honest, anything short of reaching the semis or the final was going to feel like a disappointing week. But I was playing really well and feeling like I could put a hurt on some of these sets and matches. By the finals when I was playing Taylor Fritz, you know he is coming after you as a young American in the finals of a big tournament. I was prepared for Taylor's absolute best and was able to go out there from a strategic standpoint and execute well. That was the biggest title I had ever won before Memphis."

Many years from now, Harrison may well look back upon Memphis as a seminal moment in his professional life, as an awakening of sorts about who he is and what he could become in the world of tennis. Over the course of his career, he had advanced to seven semifinals on the official ATP World Tour but had never been to a final. He broke down that barrier emphatically with a semifinal victory over Donald Young, and then ousted Nikoloz Basilashvili in the final after saving all 12 break points he faced, including 10 in the second set alone. He took that title without dropping a set, and was overcome with layers of emotion afterwards in the presentation ceremony as he lauded both of his parents and his fiancé for their immense contributions to his cause.

"I was overwhelmed," he told me the next day. "As the week played out I knew I was going to have an opportunity to win every match based on how I was playing. Once you get to the finals as I did, it is really hard to suppress the emotions of how it would be if you won. I was just trying to stay calm and relaxed. I had to save a ton of break points and Basilashvili was in a lot of controlling positions. Winning this title is definitely a moving moment for me and a changing moment. Hopefully moving forward I will continue to play well and give myself opportunities to win matches. I will just take it one day at a time. I will go home now and enjoy this moment for a couple of days and then head down to Acapulco and try to do it again. I am proud of the success I had this past week in Memphis."

As he pursues his highest aspirations in the weeks and months ahead, Harrison will be surrounded by fellow Americans who share some of the same goals. Many of these players are a part of the ATP World Tour "Next Gen" contingent that could shape the future of the game. Do players like Reilly Opelka, Frances Tiafoe and Fritz spur him on?

"Definitely," he responds. "They have been able to help me and I have been able to help them. It is tough to single one of them out as the most talented or exciting because they all have different abilities and different paths. Fritz might see Tiafoe do something well this week and then Taylor might do something special next week. They push each other. If you look back about seven months before Atlanta, Opelka from a ranking standpoint had taken a step back probably because of health reasons, but within three weeks he got to the semis of Atlanta, won a match in Cincinnati and he wins a Challenger, so all of a sudden he is looking as promising as any of them. That is going to happen as they move into the top 100 and the top 50. It is kind of a flavor of the week thing with everyone working hard to improve. What I say to them is to trust your own process and don't panic if you have a couple of bad tournaments. You are on a good track. The coolest thing is that they are all good guys and I want them all to do well."

At 24, Harrison can look forward to many more productive years and he is encouraged that the upper echelons of the sport are so heavily populated by players in their late twenties and early thirties. Roger Federer just won his 18th major at the age of 35. And so Harrison recognizes that he has plenty of time to realize his largest goals.

"The tour is getting older," he says. "Going back 20 to 25 years ago, when the best 17 and 18 year olds would come out on the tour, they were soon if not already top 30 or top 50 in the world and competing to win Slams by the time they were 20 or 21. Now, if you look at the best of the best as far as talent goes, you are talking about guys who are 22 and younger like the Zverev's and Kyrgios's and Coric's and all of those guys. Kyrgios has made it to the quarters of Slams twice but none of the others have been in the quarters or semis. It is yet to be seen how far they will go. Nick has great ability and he can win a Slam but he has not been knocking at the door yet. So for a guy like myself at 24 to know that the best 21 and 22 year olds are not ranked in the top ten in the world yet, that leaves a lot of room for success late in your career and that is pretty inspiring for me. I want to be in the top 20 in the world with all of these guys I grew up with. I know there is still room and time for me to improve."

Elaborating on that point—and keep in mind that he said this before leaping from No. 62 to No. 43 in the world after his Memphis exploits—Harrison asserts, "We [my family and team] truly believe that playing at the level I am playing at now I am capable of getting to the top 20. That is the belief around my team and that is where I feel my game is at. Now it is about making sure that if I am playing guys in the top 20 and 30 and I get in spots to win sets and matches, that I don't change and do something different. It is about my mental approach because fundamentally and physically I feel I am playing good tennis and I believe I am right there with my peers. I have to go out there and be a great competitor and not be the one who gets angry and is not even a good competitor."

One key component for Harrison will be his scheduling. As he clarifies, "The trick is figuring out which weeks I am going to play and how much to play. To improve throughout the year you can't just play tournament after tournament. You need breaks to stay healthy. For the clay court season, you need to make small adjustments in your game and you have to get stronger in the lower half of your body because of the movement aspect on that surface with points lasting longer. Off court training is important as well as on court discipline with your shotmaking. I have to be fit enough on the clay and tweak things in my game, using my heavy kick serve more because the ball jumps up. And maybe at times I will play some heavy cross[court] type tennis rather than changing with down the line shots or trying to flatten balls out as you would on a faster court."

After the breakthrough tournament triumph in Memphis, Harrison recognized that he has made substantial progress over the last eight months, and he is determined to keep moving in the right direction for the rest of 2017 and well beyond. As he concludes, "Matches won't always be as comfortable as they were in Dallas and Memphis but I know with each match that the way I serve, if I can control the tempo and control my emotions in those service games, I will create opportunities to break. For me to come through a field like Memphis without losing a set is just really eye opening on the level of what I can do when my emotions are under control and I am staying positive out there."

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