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Former prodigy Young grows into starring role, finally, at U.S. Open

NEW YORK -- His mother makes the point very well: Donald Young has always been his most difficult opponent.

In the moments on Sunday after her son's second consecutive knockout of a seeded player at the U.S. Open, Illona Young explained to a reporter why she thinks his time has finally arrived.

"I'm seeing less and less inner conflict with him; he's getting out of his own way," Illona said, leaning against a wall just off the Grandstand Court after her son advanced to the Round of 16 for the first time at a Grand Slam tournament with a straight-set victory over No. 24 Juan Ignacio Chela. "He's no longer the competition, and he was always his first opponent. Now he's at peace with himself. He knew what he could do but he was so upset that he couldn't do it."

Donald Young is doing it now with gusto and has become an improbable leading man at the start of the second week of the Open. Most tennis fans are familiar with the tale: A touted American prospect from the time he was a teenager, Young was the No. 1-ranked player on the ITF junior circuit in 2005, the same year he was the subject of a "Who's Next" feature in Newsweek. Two years later he was the youngest player to finish in the top 100 (at 18 years, 5 months).

But the ride from prodigy to pro shifted downward from there. Before this year's U.S. Open, Young, now 22, had reached a career high of only No. 73 (which came in 2008) and had a career ATP singles record of 23-55 (including 4-12 in Grand Slams). With years of frustration building, he attacked the USTA via his Twitter account earlier this year, the nadir of a feud that had been brewing for years. The 140-character blast prompted Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN analyst and general manager of USTA player development, to hold a conference call to enumerate the help the USTA had given Young.

As SI.com's Jon Wertheim surmised at the time, "Ordinarily an outspoken individual fighting the big, bad institution would be a case study in good and evil. Add in the element of race -- and only the most naive among us don't think that race is bubbling just below the surface here -- and sentiment slides still further to the underdog.

"But in this case, Young is in the wrong and the USTA is in the right. He has been given every possible advantage, short of a bye to the U.S. Open final, starting when he was barely a teenager. Money, coaching, wild cards, gear, hype ... you name it. The USTA has openly pulled for this kid. And why wouldn't they? He was precisely the type of player American tennis could dine out on for years. A crafty lefty with borderline world-class speed? A junior Wimbledon champ? A kid with a look and sensibilities that, if we're being honest here, could have exposed the sport to an entirely new demographic. ... His attitude on the court often left plenty to be desired. He burned through agents. His native talent outstripped his professionalism."

Fast forward to Sunday's match against Chela under a late-afternoon breeze at the National Tennis Center. As Young was introduced to a noticeably mixed-race crowd at the Grandstand Court, he was greeted by thunderous cheers. A man screamed from the crowd, "Donald, you can beat this guy!" Members of Young's support box urged him to "Make him feel you!" Throughout the match there were rhythmic chants whenever the diamond-stud-earring-wearing Young was close to a break.

The American won the first six points of the match and broke Chela in the second game, but the key moment for Young came leading 5-3 and serving for the opening set. With the game score at 15-15, an unforced error by Young produced an audible f-bomb. Chela als won the next point to make it 15-40, and after Young saved one break point, the American missed a forehand long when a gust of wind prompted an unforced error. With his chance to serve out the set lost, Young slammed his racket into the bag and screamed toward his box, "F------ wind took it."

This is where it could have fallen apart, but he steadied himself. He had a set point on Chela's serve but missed a forehand long. In the next game, Young fought off two break points to hold and take a 6-5 lead. He then broke the Argentine on his third set point when he sneaked to the net (Young has brilliant hands, with an innate ability to dull volleys when needed) and delicately sent a backhand volley into the open court to close the first set in 57 minutes. Illona Young said the opening set was her son writ large these days: He nearly lost his composure but found himself again. There were no f-bombs in the final two sets as Young cruised in 2 hours and 15 minutes over Chela.

"When I step on the court I actually feel like I can win, not just put up a good front, and have a good match," Young said. "Before it was more so, Don't go out here and get beat. Now I feel like I can actually win. ... It wasn't that I didn't love tennis. I just hated losing. That was pretty much the issue for me."

"He's one of those people who has to learn the hard way," said Illona, who coaches Donald along with his father, Donald Sr. "He has to learn everything firsthand and through experience. He wasn't one that would always listen. But now that he has tested the waters, he realizes there is a right way. There are other ways you can go but when he deviated, he didn't prosper."

In truth, it's been coming this summer. Young defeated Lukas Lacko in the opening round here, and his pulsating five-set win over No. 14 Stanislas Wawrinka on Friday was his third over a player ranked in the top 15 this year, including defeating Andy Murray at Indian Wells. In July, he beat top 30 players Jürgen Melzer and Marcos Baghdatis in Washington, D.C., to reach an ATP Tour semifinal for the first time. He entered the Open ranked No. 84, his highest point since May 2008, and that ranking is going to soar regardless of what happens now.

"I'm just really happy for him," Andy Roddick said. "He's a nice kid. I feel like he's gotten a little bit of a bum rap because he does have a temper and has been reactionary with his words at times. But I think he is a sweet, sweet kid. He's shy. I think he might be coming out of that shell a little bit. I hope he is."

Young said he benefited by working at the USTA Training Center in Carson, Calif., during tennis' offseason. There, he trained with fellow Americans Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey and hit with Pete Sampras.

"We were doing two-a-days in the gym, two-a-days tennis, which is more than I've ever done before," Young said. "For a time right after I was beat, but I think it's starting to pay off now. All the offseasons I've spent a week or two training and then at home just kind of having fun. I could have trained harder at home, but I didn't."

Speaking of the USTA, Young said Sunday that he regretted how he handled the Twitter incident and that the feud is over. His mother said patching up the rift has helped his game.

"That is a huge piece of it," she said. "Everything is peaceful. Everybody's pleasant. Everything is civil. It's all normal."

It's actual a new normal. On Tuesday, Young will face No. 4 Murray at Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is why BBC Radio requested Young after his match against Chela. Since 1990 only four wild cards on the men's side have reached the fourth round of the Open -- Jimmy Connors in 1991, David Wheaton in 1996, James Blake in 2005 and Young this year.

"It's a huge moment and I think he's ready for it," Illona said.

Good for him, and good for the sport: He's spent a couple of lifetimes getting here.

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