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On The Rise... Ryan Harrison

DEUCE Magazine

Harrison© ATPRyan Harrison has risen from No. 173 to No. 67 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings this year.

In a season that has seen significant breakthroughs for the likes of Milos Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov, could rising American star Ryan Harrison be next?

Ryan Harrison has been earmarked for great things since a young age.

The pressure does not come from his father, Pat, who first took Ryan to the local courts at the age of three, or the fact that it has been eight years since Andy Roddick, his friend and mentor, lifted the US Open singles trophy above his head.

It comes from the 19 year old himself. Harrison treats his tennis career as if it were a business.

"He's an excellent athlete. You can tell he doesn't want to lose one point"

Over the course of the past four seasons, Harrison has made steady progress up the South African Airways ATP Rankings. After each match, he has looked to improve every area of his game, making technical adjustments and physical improvements. He has listened to his peers, who have been in his position before.

As a fledgling professional, his rise from No. 173 to No. 67 in eight months this year shows he is well-equipped to absorb any external pressure he comes up against as he leads a new group of American talent in the professional game.

Harrison in training at Newport. Harrison, who recorded his first ATP World Tour match win as a 15 year old, fits the mold of the new generation, combining an imposing serve and forehand with a strong physique that complements his speed around the court.

It is no surprise his game has drawn comparisons to Roddick. "He bears a resemblance to Roddick, both physically and emotionally," says Justin Gimelstob, an ATP Board member and television analyst. "He’s an excellent athlete. You can tell he doesn’t want to lose one point. Sometimes that boils over into some negative emotion, but the heart of it is just a pure desire to win and reach his potential. The way he shows his emotions is comparable to the way Roddick reveals his."

Roddick's words of wisdom have helped Harrison, who admitted to DEUCE in Cincinnati, "Andy’s been a huge influence on me. We have a good relationship and we talk frequently. He's been a great mentor and huge advantage to have on the tour. I have a massive amount of appreciation for what he’s been able to help me with in my career."

John Newcombe, the three-time former Wimbledon champion, who negotiated Harrison's contract with IMG, and Nick Bollettieri, from his Florida academy since 2008, have also played a part in his rise to the ATP World Tour.

"Roddick has also been a big help and mentor for Ryan as he tries to work his way to the top"

"Having world class competition on a daily basis is always a plus," says Pat Harrison, a former director at Newcombe's Tennis Academy in New Braunfels, Texas. "Combined with Nick's positive energy it has been very beneficial [to move to Bradenton]. Andy Roddick has also been a big help and mentor for Ryan as he tries to work his way to the top."

The seeds of Ryan's tennis prowess were planted well before he was born. The sport has played a large part in Harrison family life for more than 50 years. 

It all started with Ryan's grandfather, Jimmy, a one-time All-American halfback at Louisiana Tech University and state championship-winning coach, who learned to play tennis from reading a book and soon gave lessons during the football off-season. He coached all five of his children including Pat, who briefly played on the satellite tour before retiring to get married and take up coaching.

Pat Harrison takes up the story, admitting, "When Ryan was three years old he would ask to go to work with me each day, and for a while I resisted.

Pat and Ryan celebrate a win."I finally took him one day, but told my wife to be ready to pick him up after an hour because he would get bored and want to come home. He never did. He would stay 12 hours a day with me.

"There was a big wall to hit on, right next to my teaching court and he would get a racquetball racquet and hit on it non-stop. When he got tired he would go in and watch the Cartoon Network. If I had a lesson cancelled, I would hit with him.

"I first noticed his talent very early. He could rally from the baseline before he was four. He was playing tournaments where you had to keep your score at age five, which is when all three of our children - Ryan, Christian and Madison - all played their first tournament. At the age of seven, Christian and Ryan qualified for the 12-and-under nationals and won a round."

Though Ryan Harrison now works with Scott McCain, his father - who he calls 'Sir' - maintains an active role. "My grandfather died in 1998, but my dad has always been and still is one of the most influential, if not the most influential person in my life," declares Harrison. "He's taught me everything I know. I have an enormous amount of respect for him. We have a great relationship and we talk all the time."

Hailing from a close-knit family, it is no surprise that Harrison admits to being "a big fan of smaller closed environments. I'm not a guy that likes to go out and party.”

But inside the alleys, it is a different matter. The business of professional tennis first became a reality for Harrison in 2008, when, as a 15 year old, he became the third youngest player since 1990 to record a tour-level victory, defeating World No. 95 Pablo Cuevas at the US Clay Court Championships in Houston. "I remember getting really excited about it. I was thrilled to have a Top 100 win," recalls Harrison. "It was the first real wake up call for me that I could play at the highest level professionally.

"I wasn't thinking about what would happen, which actually helped me..."

"I wasn't thinking about what would happen, which actually helped me considering the fact I didn’t really know how big it would be. I was just playing tennis, which I think at some stages now, when you understand a little more, it can kind of psyche you out, which is not always the best thing. For me I was just playing to hit tennis balls. I liked playing tennis, I had a lot of confidence in myself and I was able to pull a win out."

Watch Harrison In ATP World Tour Uncovered

Life looked to be on an upward curve. But in 2008, Christian, Ryan's younger brother and a talented junior himself, was forced to deal with a serious unexpected injury.

At first, doctors found a benign tumor in Christian’s quad, but later discovered a bone infection in his femur. "They drilled a hole the size of a dime in his hip," says Harrison. "Seeing him go through that and being healthy was one of the toughest things I've gone through. When he was going through that, I was trying to play and take each thing day by day."

Though Christian overcame the injury scare - he recently won a qualifying match at the Winston-Salem Open - he hasn’t completely recovered from the infection. "I talk to him before and after my matches and he’s kind of living his life vicariously through me right now," says Harrison. "When he’s out of commission, he’s lives to see how I’m doing.

"I'm playing for a lot more than just to play a game..."

"It’s a different weight I carry on my shoulders as an older brother, trying to set a good example. I’m trying to help out as much as I can with him and his development. I’m playing for a lot more than just to play a game.

"He’s not quite healthy but he’s a very promising junior, so he’s going to have a great shot at being a top professional himself."

This season, Harrison's hard work and "competitive fire", which his father cites is his best quality, is paying off.

His father proudly states, "He has had a competitive fire from an early age on the court. Off the court he is a very kind-hearted and down-to-earth kid. Far different from what you see on the court. He does a great job of being able to separate the two."

Harrison played Federer at Indian Wells in March. In March, he beat three Top 50 players at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells en route to a fourth-round loss to Roger Federer. He qualified at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but the summer North American swing reaffirmed his belief that he can be a top player.

After teaming up with Matthew Ebden to win his first doubles title at the Campbell's Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport, Harrison reached back-to-back ATP World Tour singles semi-finals at the Atlanta Tennis Championships and the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles. Both times he lost to Mardy Fish, the World No. 8 and U.S. No. 1.

Former ATP pro Gimelstob sees his exposure to Top 50 stars as a positive. "He’s had so many repetitions against top players at such a young age," Gimelstob says. "Look at the difference in his two matches against Mardy. He learned a lot from the first loss in just a one week span, and was able to apply it tactically and make a significant difference. There’s no doubt that he’s going to learn and grow from all of these experiences against Top 10 opponents."

Pat Harrison agrees, "I am proud about the way he bounces back from tough losses and is able to put it behind him. I don't think you can be a good player if you can't deal with failure and learn to put it in its proper place and then have it motivate you to get even better. To be a great player he will have to learn to win regularly and be able to deal with that as well."

"If I play within myself and play well, I think I can pull off a seed in Australia"

Harrison attributes his achievements this summer to improving his mental toughness. “I’ve been making sure I play every match with the expectation and trust in my game, that if I play well, I’m going to have the ability to win. I haven’t been playing out of my comfort zone. It’s just been about playing each point with a thought-out, constructive process. It’s a really simple concept but it’s a difficult thing to grasp, especially at the highest levels."

As he enters the US Open with a career-best ranking of World No. 67, Harrison is full of confidence and is eager to produce his best showing at a Grand Slam championship. “From here on out, it’s just a matter of trying to go Top 50," he admits. "I think by the end of the year, with four months still left, I think a good goal would be to try and get seeded at the Australian Open, if I could get the ranking up high enough."

"I don’t have a whole lot of points coming off, just about 100-150 coming off the rest of the year, which is not that many for someone at the tour-level. If I play within myself and play well, I think I can pull off a seed in Australia."

For Harrison, anything is possible.  

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