NEW YORK -- The best moment in American tennis this year? You could point to Serena Williams' stirringly tearful return at Wimbledon, or the flare-up of vivid, varied talents like Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Jack Sock last week at the U.S. Open. Some, of course, will focus on the three Yanks -- Andy Roddick, John Isner and 22-year-old Donald Young -- who made deep runs in the men's draw, despite all bowing out before the semis.
But, really, it's not even close. In April, after being told by the U.S. Tennis Association that he'd have to compete in a playoff for a wild card into the French Open, Young dropped a Twitter-bomb that had no peer for petulance and astonishingly oblivious self-regard. "F--- USTA!" Young tweeted. "Their [sic] full of s---! They have ----ed me for the last time!"
Sometimes, gifts arrive in strange packages. This one will keep on giving to the American game for years.
Sure, it was embarrassing. Here was the USA's most gifted and underachieving prospect misspelling -- like a complete Twitt-iot -- his way into ignominy. Here was USTA development chief Patrick McEnroe humiliating Young with a breakdown of all the USTA wild cards, coaching and "significant" amounts of cash thrown his way over the last six years. Here was Young apologizing for his language but not his message, missing out on Roland Garros -- and emerging as the entitlement poster child while coaches, family members and USTA officials frantically spitballed responses to the question seemingly sure to haunt the next decade: "Who lost Donald Young?"
But come the U.S. Open, two things happened. Young began to win, and began to talk. "Everyone's light turns on at their own time," he said after the first round. "I'm starting to feel like mine is turning on. I wish it could have been earlier."
After the second round, he praised the USTA and thanked it for all the support, spoke of how he had needed to grow up, laughingly told how he'd played a game to 21 with Pete Sampras not even a year ago. "He beat me," Young said. "He let me know that wasn't good. Called me a little princess ..."
After his third-round win, Young admitted what coaches have said for years: That he should've trained better in the offseasons. That he needs work still. "You can always improve and never feel like you know everything, which was probably a big thing of mine," he said at his news conference Sunday. "I felt I didn't need to work as hard as other people."
Then he blurted out a Freudian slip that summed up his old mindset -- "You know, talent beats hard work when talent doesn't work hard" -- before rushing to clarify as soon as the conference ended.
"I meant, 'Hard work beats talent,' " Young said.
Asked if his rogue tweet was somehow a good thing, Young smiled. "Definitely not," he said. "It's not the way it should have been done."
It was the right response, but Young is wrong. From the perspective of his parents, who are also his coaches, the blowup released years of tension, and provided a needed clarity. Young says he's open to supplementing his coaching with USTA help -- but hasn't since April. He has decided his parents are the main voices he wants to hear.
"That Twitter incident, he had to stand up for his own," Donald Young Sr. said after his son's five-set, comeback win over Stan Wawrinka last Friday. "He was fighting between his group and the outside people. He put that to bed, he apologized -- I asked him to apologize for the language, not the message -- and that's the part he was happy about. And once he came to grips with it, I said, 'That's becoming a man: When you can admit that and move on.' "
Never mind that the Youngs' message -- that the USTA has screwed him somehow -- is near-delusional; in the past year alone, Young trained for three weeks at its training site in Carson, Calif., and had a USTA-paid coach accompany him to Indian Wells (where he beat a sluggish Murray in straight sets) and Miami. Still, American tennis has a long history of paranoid geniuses, and if that's the gas Young needed to get going, so be it. Young's wins over Wawrinka and the usually tenacious Juan Ignacio Chela in New York revealed a clearly fit player willing to grind his way through long rallies. That's new.
"In the past he didn't have that belief; a lot of times he tapped out in matches and hung his head and didn't give his best effort because he knew he didn't do the work," McEnroe said Tuesday. "There's a lot of room to improve. His serve can be a lot better ... but he's using it the right way now. That's a message, also: That he believes in his game more, taking a lot off his serve, and saying, 'I'm willing to grind.' If he can make that serve a bit bigger and still have that mentality? This guy could do a lot of damage."
Mentality is the key, obviously. After McEnroe blasted him publicly, Young called every one of the USTA coaches who had worked with him over the years to apologize. "It was a good thing," said USTA director of coaching Jose Higueras of Young's tweet. "I was really impressed with the way Donald handled it, actually. He gave me a call and I said, 'I know you. I know you're a good kid; we all screw up.' And hopefully it didn't only help him, but also the young kids coming up, to understand that you have to do something to get something."
For the longest time, of course, that wasn't the USTA way. The American game's governing body had held competitions for slots on Junior Davis Cup teams, but the practice tailed off at decade's end -- just as the USTA was getting richer and fatter, and the talent pipeline was going dry. The standard for Grand Slam wild cards then was subjective and could be political; for the five discretionary wild cards at Flushing Meadows it was a tactic used as much to fill seats as foster young talent. In 2006, a new USTA playoff for the one U.S. wild card into the Australian and French Opens was established -- but almost instantly undermined when Sam Querrey was handed his for the '07 Australian without having to compete for it.
McEnroe took over USTA development in 2008 determined to take a harder line on what Higueras calls its "culture of entitlement." Homegrown players would still be tendered one of five wild cards in New York based on promise or past accomplishment (Young earned his Open pass based a semifinal run in Washington that included wins over No. 18 Jurgen Melzer and No. 26 Marcos Baghdatis), but those for Paris and Melbourne would have to be won on the court. Starting in 2010, the same would go for one of the U.S. Open wild-card slots.
"Go out there and earn it: Everything is based around that concept, and it's pretty simple," McEnroe said while sitting behind the ESPN booth, waiting out Tuesday's rain. At that moment, his brother John walked past. "And for whatever reason we got away from that somehow, maybe because we had so many great players who did it their way and were so successful. Bringing that accountability back is really what the program is about."
Making the idea stick hadn't been easy; McEnroe heard squawking from both the Sloane Stephens and Ryan Harrison camps when the players heard they had to compete for U.S. Open slots last year. But it will be now. Young's tweet gave McEnroe the chance to set his feet and, in effect, tell his No. 1 draft pick to shut up and play. In a sport where everybody dances to the top players' tunes, that's almost unheard of. Young's self-demeaning manner at this Open will make it hard for any young American to demand special treatment. And his New York run will make it nearly impossible to say the hard line doesn't work.
"I've never bought into this whole idea that our kids are soft," McEnroe said. "We're soft -- the coaches and the mentors are the ones who're soft. Kids will adjust to what we tell them to do. It's up to us to set the tone and send that message across the board. Hopefully we're sending the right message: You've got to earn it."
McEnroe paused, then plunged in. You could tell he was going to enjoy saying this, and why not? It would be a first for the USTA.
"To be perfectly honest: We're not going to take any s---," he said. "That doesn't mean we're not going to work with you or listen to what people say about how we can do better. But we're not going to take any s---."