Donald Young's Baptism By Fire
Australian Open 2008
Donald Young knows that the ATP Tour guarantees no victories, only defeats. But after suffering a series of shattering losses during his artificial elevation to the pro tour, Young found his way in 2007 and finished inside the Top 100. Will 2008 be his coming out party?
Donald Young is accustomed to winning tennis matches and the 18-year-old proved that in 2007 - at least on the Challenger circuit. Now the Atlanta teenager is gearing up for his first full campaign as a regular member of the ATP tour.
"He's got a lot of good instincts for the game and he's been able to win at the junior level and then at the Challengers," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who has watched Young's progress over the past three years. "He's been able to get the experience and get more pop on his serve. Now it's getting his physical maturity up and once he does that he will be able to win at the tour level. His forehand is a big weapon. In the last year he's stepped up."
Young finished last year as the youngest player in the Top 100 South African Airways ATP Rankings at No. 98, making the jump with successful results early in the season at the Futures level and then in Challengers. He compiled a 34-14 record in Challengers, winning one title and reaching four other finals.
In limited ATP level play (2-3), the left-hander also broke through to win his first ATP match, breaking an 0-11 career mark, and he advanced to the third round at the US Open.
But one year ago Young was looking for the confidence on the pro scene that took him to a Grand Slam junior title and that saw him become the No. 1 junior player in the world in 2005.
"He played too much too soon (at the tour level) and he wasn't physically ready for that," added McEnroe. "The good news is he learned from the mistake and then learned to gain confidence in the juniors and Challengers. He got a lot of tough press but mentally he’s a pretty tough kid."
He needed to be. In March 2006 at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Young suffered the worst loss of his career – a dreaded double bagel - to No. 81 Carlos Berlocq. "I never lost 6-0, 6-0 in my life and it was an all-time low," says Young, who began to question whether he belonged at ATP level. "I went back home, hung out with my friends and I didn't feel like traveling. I didn't want to play much."
The loss was Young's ninth straight without winning a set. Young would take the first set off of then No. 23-ranked Novak Djokovic in the first round of the US Open. He closed out 2006 by reaching the quarterfinals at the Louisville Challenger and said "I felt like I was playing better."
Young's father Donald Sr. and mother Illona, who first met as mixed doubles opponents, have been behind their son's career every step of the way. Illona, who was denied the chance to play tennis as a child because it was too expensive, attended college at Iowa Wesleyan. She is a certified teacher who home-schooled her son so he could travel to tournaments around the world. Donald, Sr. was the No. 1 player at Alabama State.
"My parents are my biggest inspiration and they always support me in the ups-and-downs and it never changes," Young says.
Young, who at age three was able to hold rallies, grew up on the courts while his parents taught tennis in Chicago. They now run the South Fulton Tennis Center in Atlanta, where he trains.
At age 10, Young was a ball boy for a senior tournament in Chicago where John McEnroe was playing. As it turned out McEnroe’s hitting partner was late and Young ended up hitting with the former World No. 1. “The sky is the limit,” McEnroe said to the New York Times after watching Young at the Roland Garros junior tournament in 2005. “He’s the first person I ever saw that had hands like me.”
Young’s early success was chronicled in several national publications such as Newsweek, who included the teenager in the magazine’s “2005 Who’s Next” list of up-and-comers, along with another rising African-American star, Barack Obama. ESPN the Magazine and Chicago Tribune Magazine also ran lengthy features on Young.
In January 2007, Young went into the U.S. Futures stop in Tampa ranked No. 491. He advanced to his first pro final and the following week he reached the quarterfinals in North Miami Beach. It was the beginning of a breakthrough season.
In April, he was selected as a practice partner for the U.S. Davis Cup quarterfinal tie against. Spain in Winston-Salem, N.C. He then advanced to his first Challenger quarterfinal in Valencia, Calif. and the following week he captured his first pro title at the U.S. Futures stop in Little Rock, Ark. The month concluded with a week-long practice session with Andy Roddick and his coach Jimmy Connors in Austin, Texas.
"It was a great experience talking with Andy, James (Blake) and the Bryans during Davis Cup," said Young. "They always tell you keep trying and work hard and they want the young guys to play well. James said 'stay focused and believe in what you do and keep doing it.' Andy invited me to his house (in Austin) after Little Rock. It was all business and a good experience. We worked on some drills and Andy gave me some helpful advice."
Blake said earlier this year during the U.S. Davis Cup quarterfinals, "I think he has the talent. I'd love to see him staying positive all the time out on the court. I think he gets down on himself, which I was definitely guilty of early in my career and probably still am. I am still human, I go back to it sometimes. I see a little bit of myself in that."
The week-long practice sessions seemed to pay dividends in Young's next tournaments as he turned in a quarterfinal in Tunica, Miss. and semifinal in Carson, Calif. In July, he collected his second Grand Slam junior title at Wimbledon and followed with his first Challenger title in Aptos, Calif. without dropping a set.
"I always play well at Wimbledon," says Young, who also reached the junior semifinals in 2005. "That was awesome and I thought I had a target on my back going in. I didn't know many of the players since it was my first (and only) junior tournament of the year. I was seeded number three and right after I won it, it sunk in and a lot of people expected me to win and there was a lot of pressure. It felt great. Anything less than a title and I wasn't satisfied."
Young's next breakthrough moment came in New Haven where he defeated countryman Amer Delic in three sets for his first ATP match win. In the second round he took No. 4 ranked Nikolay Davydenko to a hard-fought 7-5 in the third set match and came within two points of the victory. Young watched the match later that night on ESPN2 and he came away impressed with his performance.
"It was a big relief (to get that first win) and big step for me. I came out loose against Davydenko and I had nothing to lose," said Young, who was playing his first Top 10 opponent. "That match gave me a lot of confidence and I watched the match that night. I was shocking myself with some of the shots that I hit. It was also nice to hear the things Nikolay said afterwards."
Young then made his third appearance at the US Open a memorable one as he defeated big-serving Aussie Chris Guccione in four sets to win his first Grand Slam match. He received a walkover against No. 13 seed Richard Gasquet before falling in four sets to Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in the third round on a packed Louis Armstrong Stadium.
"I was psyched about the Open," said Young, who jumped from No. 223 to No. 170 afterwards, achieving his Top 200 goal before the season. "It was a big win for me against Guccione, a serve-and-volleyer and I would have liked to play Gasquet but to be in the third round against Lopez was pretty special. I was nervous and just happy to be out there playing well. It was pretty packed and I would look up and the crowd was cheering for me. It was awesome.
"My goal was to finish this year Top 200 and my dad said 'You're going to finish Top 100' and he said this at the beginning of the year. I was still thinking to move up and go to Top 150."
Young's strong post-US Open results included four Challenger finals in seven tournaments, including three of the last four. During that stretch he played seven of nine weeks, reaching finals in Tulsa, Calabasas, Louisville and Champaign. He achieved his father, Donald, Sr.'s goal of finishing in the Top 100 and earning a direct acceptance into the Australian Open main draw. He was also named practice partner for the U.S.-Russia Davis Cup final.
"I felt good playing week-to-week and playing the same guys again," says Young, who was one of seven Americans to finish in the Top 100. "I didn't have any injuries or never got tired. I won a lot more free points on my serve and I hit my groundstrokes better. I was a lot more consistent off the ground. I was running down a lot of balls and felt quicker, faster on the court than in the past."
McEnroe's assessment: "His serve has gotten better and he's winning more points on it, his forehand is better and he could take the ball early and he has good court sense. He's been getting more consistency off the ground and he has tremendous speed and great feel for the ball and court."
Young will begin the 2008 campaign in Melbourne, his first visit Down Under since his memorable title run in the juniors three years ago at 15. He concluded the 2005 season as the world's top-ranked junior at the age of 16 years, 5 months, becoming the youngest player and first American since Andy Roddick in 2000 to finish No. 1 in juniors.
"He's earned his way into the Top 100 and he's won a lot of matches," said McEnroe. "Now when he gets into the Australian Open he's earned it and mentally that's the biggest thing for him along with his play in the past six months."
Young said: "I feel good about returning and even though the courts will be different (blue plexicushion), I have great memories there and go in with a lot of confidence. My last match I played was on Margaret Court and I wouldn't mind playing there again."
"I want to play well in Australia and keep moving up the rankings and not be content. I just want to get better and I feel like I will win matches. I know it takes some time and that's the ultimate goal. I would like to be Top 50 by the end of next year and that's my goal."
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