Donald Young struggling to snap out of seemingly endless slump
We are approaching the anniversary of Donald Young's coming-out party. His spirited rush into the fourth round of the 2011 U.S. Open was his awakening, and it created a sparkling new image for all who had doubted him.
How long ago that seems. At the moment, as he makes a hasty exit from the Cincinnati event, the man can't win a match to save his life.
That's 17 straight losses and counting for Young, who took a 6-4, 7-6 (2) defeat in Monday's first round to Jesse Levine, a qualifier he should have waxed. Vince Spadea set the ATP Tour record in 2000 with 21 consecutive losses, after which his career took a dramatically refreshing turn (less than five years later, he peaked at No. 18). One hesitates to predict such a revival for Young.
"It's sad," Brad Gilbert said as he prepared to work the Cincinnati event for ESPN. "Tennis is such a mental game, and Donald is mentally beaten up right now. You don't wish for anybody to go through something like this. When you're winning and everything's going good, you find ways to win. But it's the exact same thing when you're cold. You find a way to lose."
As an example, Gilbert used Young's recent loss to Jeremy Chardy in Toronto. After winning the first set, Young fought hard but lost a second-set tiebreaker -- and then appeared to capitulate. The third set was a 6-0 whitewash. "Donald had a real good look at that match," Gilbert said. "But he lost his spirit after that tiebreaker. He found a way to lose."
As Steve Tignor wrote on Tennis.com, "You can see doubt etched on his face from the first moments of his matches -- he's waiting for something to go wrong. And when you do that, you usually don't have to wait long."
It's not as if Young, 23, has spent the year losing to lesser-ranked players. As the horrendous streak unfolded, his conquerors included Andreas Seppi (Olympics), Mikhail Youzhny (Wimbledon), Grigor Dmitrov (French Open), Gilles Simon (Rome), Viktor Troicki (Madrid) and John Isner (in the second round of Memphis, triggering the streak).
A closer look at the Wimbledon match, however, reveals the symptoms of a disturbing malaise. Young won the first set and was up 3-1 in the second set, at which point Youzhny was so upset, he banged himself in the head with his racket and said, in the direction of press row, "Looks like I go home today."
The Russian wound up winning in four sets, and as Young's mother, Illona, told reporters afterward, "He was ready to give in. It was like he was getting ready to have reasons for losing. But Donald was so caught up in himself that he didn't see it. His own doubt had come back."
By the end of that match, Young was fussing and fuming and complaining aloud, in his mother's direction, "Every time I get here, I play like a punk." Howard Bryant was on the scene for ESPN.com and wrote, "Only with Donald Young on the court could a guy who just whacked himself in the head with a racket appear more composed."
Illona's frank remarks cut to the heart of this story. Donald is an only child, coached by his parents -- each a teaching professional at their academy in Atlanta -- and the USTA has tried for years to release Young from his cocoon. It's not that Illona and Donald Sr. are oblivious to the crisis; they're well aware that their son has problems with confidence and consistency. But the Youngs are staying tight as a family, rejecting the USTA's advances and only recently seeking outside help. At the Cincinnati event, Donald announced the hiring of Roger Smith, who has coached up-and-coming WTA talent Sloane Stephens, to work alongside his parents. How long will Smith be on board? That remains to be seen.
"It's not like the parents are bad people at all," said a longtime tour insider with past connections to the family. "I think they have moments where they acknowledge -- at least to themselves -- that you have to reach out, pick up a little expert advice here, a little guidance there, just do everything you can to make your kid better. But when they take a step in that direction, it never seems to last. They've got a couple chips on their shoulders -- sometimes for good reason, sometimes for imaginary ones. They seem to do enough to make it look like they're cooperating, but they never genuinely are, and in turn, they've made it awfully hard for a top-flight coach to get close enough to Donald to make a meaningful difference. Deep down, there's a nice, talented kid there who just needs to be managed, coached and mentored."
Over the years, Young has worked with several of the USTA's top coaches, including Jay Berger, the head of men's tennis at the USTA Player Development program.
"He's a great kid," Berger said on Monday. "I've never had a problem with the family; they've always been very nice to me. I've enjoyed every moment I've spent with him, and that's true with all our coaches. We really believe in him as a player."
Berger made it clear that the USTA isn't about to close any doors, but he acknowledged some frustration in trying to lock Young into full-time coaching. And it's safe to say the road hasn't always been smooth. In the summer of 2009, in an e-mail signed by Berger, USTA coach Jose Higueras and Patrick McEnroe, general manager of player development, the USTA informed Young that he needed to improve his fitness and seek out better coaching and practice partners. The parents backed off, choosing to retain control.
Then came Donald's infamous tweet in 2011, an ill-advised move that probably put him forever at odds with McEnroe. Upset that he didn't automatically get the USTA's wild card into the French Open (the organization conducted its customary playoff, which Young lost), he eviscerated the USTA in a 14-word rant, three of the words unprintable. The result is a tenuous relationship that may never be repaired.
"We're certainly not going to reach out to them at this point, because we've done that for five years," McEnroe told ESPN earlier this summer. "They've made it clear they want to do it their way. You have to live with your decisions."
What's left is a tormented, somewhat jaded player with a career characterized mostly by nostalgia.
Young entered last year's U.S. Open with only a trickle of momentum, but suddenly he was knocking off Stanislas Wawrinka in a five-set, second-round thriller and, just as important, winning over the crowd with his exuberant demeanor. That made him an instant story at the National Tennis Center, and he defeated Juan Ignacio Chela in the third round before falling to Andy Murray in straight sets.
This was a year in which Young rose from No. 128 in the rankings to a year-end-best 39, and in the first week of October, he scored an inspirational victory over Gael Monfils in Bangkok to reach his first main-tour final (again losing to Murray). This was encouraging news to a lot of players who remembered Young as the world's top-ranked junior, his future apparently unlimited after winning the 2007 Wimbledon boys' singles title.
"It's hard to live up to the pressure of being so good at a young age," Roger Federer said when asked about Young during last year's U.S. Open. "I had those expectations, but I was 17, 18, 19. He had them at 15 and 16 [the year Young turned pro]. It's a big difference. It seems like he's making his move now."
Noted promoter and former pro Donald Dell told ESPN.com, "It's a classic case of a tremendously talented kid coming into the pros, in my opinion, way too fast. When that happens, everybody on the circuit tries to beat his brains out because they want to destroy his confidence. They're afraid he's going to get better and better."
Young's initiation to the pros was a shock -- at one point he lost 14 straight matches before dropping down to the Challenger level -- and he seems to be living that nightmare all over again. He's 2-20 for the year, with a pre-Cincinnati ranking of No. 80, and if he fails to defend his U.S. Open points from last year, he could find himself needing to qualify for the elite tournaments again.
"That might be the best thing that could happen," said Gilbert, who invited Young for a week of intensive training at his California home four years ago but couldn't get his lessons to stick. "If I was working with him now, I'd even drop him down to play a couple of Challengers just to win some matches and get some confidence going.
"What needs work in his game? It's hard to put a finger on it," Gilbert went on. "I've noticed he's been changing rackets a lot -- Head, Prince, Dunlop, back to Prince -- and that shows some indecision. The thing that's really let him down is his serve. As a lefty, last year he really seemed to be maneuvering his serve around and playing more patiently. But he's not a big guy [6 feet, 160 pounds] and the game is so physical now, when things aren't going well, you have to work 10 times harder."
Gilbert made certain Young's parents weren't around during their week of coaching sessions, but he can understand Donald's mindset.
"There are more parents coaching on the tour now than ever," he said. "Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, and on the women's tour recently I've seen a lot of parents coming down [for on-court coaching]. Obviously, it's something he's always done. Even when the USTA was helping him, mom was always there. Usually, when things aren't going well for a player, the first move is to fire the coach. It's a lot harder to fire your parents."
Somehow, Young needs to rediscover the on-court strategy and mental toughness that made him such a force in the first week at the U.S. Open. "Everybody's light comes on at a different time," he said back then, "and I feel like mine's coming on."
We find him now in darkness, fumbling for that light switch, a once-promising career in the balance.