Great Expectations: Ryan Harrison
For nearly a decade, Ryan Harrison has carried the burden of being “the next big thing” in American tennis. But now, he’s figured out how to enjoy the ride.
By Eddie Kamber
There is no greater weight for an athlete to carry than the burden of expectations. Ryan Harrison has been carrying the expectations of US tennis fans since he won his first ATP match prior to his 16th birthday in 2008, only the 10th player ever to accomplish the feat.
During the summer of 2016, Harrison felt that he had to make a decision. At age 24, did he want to stay the course and continue as a struggling ATP player seeking to keep his head above water, or would he change his approach and do whatever was necessary to fulfill the promise he exhibited early in his career, when many thought he was US tennis’ heir apparent to Andy Roddick.
“I knew something had to change and that reflective moment for me came after the 2016 Wimbledon, when I lost in first round qualifying,” Harrison says. “I went home to Florida, and I was with my wife, my brother, my dad and Peter (Lucassen), my coach at the time, and we had a really long reflective talk about it. It wasn’t necessarily about quitting, but it was about quitting that approach.”
Today, his troubles gone but not forgotten, Harrison reflects on what caused his career threatening struggles from his hotel across the street from the Nassau Coliseum in New York, where he sought a sequel to his 2017 Memphis Open title at the inaugural New York Open.
“I was kind of the, the gap after (Andy) Roddick. Roddick was still in the prime of his career. He was 26, 27, when I broke through. He had been a top 10 player for a number of years. He’d always carried a big weight of, the American tennis load when it came to having a top guy who’s going to compete for slams, from 2003 to 2012. Andy was really our guy, people looked at him to see where he was at in the Grand Slams.”
With the heavy expectations of being labeled as Roddick’s successor, Harrison came of age in a very mentally unforgiving sport.
“When Andy was 26, and I started coming through, I guess people looked at me as a new face and a new opportunity, something to get excited about. I was excited to have that role, and I was really excited to have some great mentors, guys like Andy and Marty (Fish), and some of the top American guys. But after having a lot of good, strong years to start things out, I guess I was about 20 years old when the first down year hit. It wasn’t a massive down year, but it was kind of a steady decline. It wasn’t a complete fall off the cliff.”
On top of the mounting pressures, Harrison’s mentality was also a source of inner turmoil. “I just didn’t have the right mindset to continue to improve on it,” he says. “And that put me in a little bit of a shell, which caused my confidence to really deteriorate. Once that happened, it felt like a lot of things were on the court with me that weren’t about me playing tennis. A lot of weight was on my shoulders, and it wasn’t a good weight. It wasn’t motivation. It was a lot of frustration.”
As Harrison struggled on the court, the press added fuel to his frustration..
“My struggles started off on-court, because I felt the initial panic of my ranking going backwards. Then, all of a sudden, negative reports came out, and I had to start answering questions that were different than the ones before. The year before, the questions were, ‘How excited are you being in the quarter-finals, semi-finals at this event?’ And then the next year, you’re not there, and it’s, ‘Hey, how disappointing is it to not reach where you were last year?’ That sort of thought process enters into your mind. And as a competitor, the first thing you want to do is stand up for yourself and go out there and produce better results. You want to put something on the board to show the people who are the doubters that you can do it, and you want to do it for your own personal success.”
After the 2016 Wimbledon, where Harrison underwent an intervention of sorts, his desire to change was further aided by his wife, Lauren McHale.
“Lauren became a very important part of my life, even before we got married. She watched me make poor decisions—from dietary decisions, to the sleep decisions and she was actually one of the big driving forces that helped me get out of my rut, along with my dad and coach.”
As his approach to the game matured through a new found light, Harrison took his mounting desire to change from within to the 2016 US Open Qualifiers and eventually on to the main draw.
“I was down five games to two at set point in the first round of qualifying and then I turned around and qualified,” he says. “I beat Milos (Raonic), who was a top five player and coming off the Wimbledon finals. I started to understand mentally what sort of variance and level I could have by just staying strong and staying tough. Because I fought, I stayed tough. I ended up winning I want to say two, four, six, nine sets in a row to then get to the second round and face Milos, and your confidence starts rolling. The next thing you know, I’m beating the number four player in the world. That was a big confidence builder. Knowing that in the biggest format, the three out of five sets, I can beat a top five player. You take that mindset, that confidence, and you put it in the back of your mind. When you are faced with a tough opportunity, you know you can win.”
While the start of his resurgence during the fall of 2016 was reassuring, for Harrison, the biggest moment of his comeback came at the 2017 Memphis Open.
“Memphis was big because even though the Grand Slam title (2017 French Open Men’s Doubles) was huge, the Memphis Open last year was the biggest. I remember looking at all my peers and my competitors winning their first titles, holding that trophy up and getting the first spotlight everybody gets when they win. It makes you wonder, is that moment going to happen for me? And then it happened, and it felt like it was a relief at the same time. I remember almost a jolting surge feeling in my body when I finally won that tournament.”
To add to his elation, Harrison received the approval of his longtime idol and predecessor Andy Roddick.
“Andy texted me that he had goose bumps seeing me win,” Harrison says. ”He knew it wasn’t always an easy road. Andy watched me make a lot of poor decisions first hand. So when he saw that I was able to turn everything around, I think he felt for me. It meant a lot to have his support.”
Unburdened by finally winning his first ATP title, Harrison’s success culminated with a doubles championship at the 2017 French Open. At that moment, Harrison experienced what it was like to be surrounded by champions.
“Whenever you go far at a Grand Slam in doubles, you still feel like you’re a part of the thick of things. You know you’re at the event. You’re at Roland Garros, and even though I wasn’t playing the singles semi-finals or finals, I was there in the locker room with six other people—guys like Wawrinka, Nadal, Novak and Andy. Then there’s you and your partner and whoever else is in the later stage of the tournament. We started to see the professionalism and the preparation and the way that things are handled in the routine. You pay attention, and you start to have that sort of sense of belonging.”
With his sense of belonging firmly reestablished, Harrison asserted what he expects from himself looking ahead at the remainder of the 2018 season. “I’ve had one goal, and it’s been the most important goal for me for the last year and a half,” he says. “That’s just to really have a lot of pride in not necessarily the result, but the performance, the attitude and the intent with which I play. It’s been my goal every year for the last couple years, for every match in the last two years, to be able to look back on it and know that I gave everything I had, and that I’ve played with the right intent.”
Along with his success on the court, Harrison has found a level of perspective and self-awareness that had not been present for a number of years.
“This new approach puts me in a much happier place, so I can have this conversation with you after a really tough loss first round here (New York Open). And for me not to be telling you that I felt like my career was deteriorating. I could tell you that I was proud of my performance. I was proud of my intent. Maybe the match didn’t go my way, but I believe that that’s what’s going to get me where I want to be.”
Looking back on his struggles and his not too distant turbulent past, Harrison had advice for other players on tour who may be going through similar problems as to what he once went through.
“My message is what I wish I would’ve had a grasp on when I was 19 or 20 years old. The success of your career is not based on where your ranking is or where your wins and losses are at at one specific time. At the end of the day, nobody’s going to look back on the New York Open in 2018 and think that that was the make or break point of your career. What they’re going to look at is the trend of intent and the way that you play. And that would be my message to anybody who really needed to hear it. The message would be that your success is measured by your level of commitment and your intent, your joy, and the manner in which you play. It’s not about the result you end up with.“