sistaff
Thursday October 13th, 2011

Bernard Tomic, Ryan Harrison

Bernard Tomic (left) is ranked No. 49 and is 13-13 in ATP singles play in 2011. Ryan Harrison, 19, is ranked No. 79 and has a 13-18 record this year. (AP)

Last week's Toss produced the closest poll results we've seen in this feature. Courtney Nguyen and Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times debated who would have won -- had Novak Djokovic's famous forehand sailed wide -- in a hypothetical U.S. Open final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It was a narrow decision for the readers, with 52 percent agreeing with Courtney that Federer would have emerged victorious.

This week, we take a look into the crystal ball for two promising young players.

Today’s Toss: Which teen has more upside, Ryan Harrison or Bernard Tomic?

C.W. Sesno, tennis producer, SI.com: Well, Courtney, this is a tough one. Both young players have shown spurts of huge potential, but to me, Harrison possesses a rare combination of level-headed maturity and a burning inner fire to be successful. Of course, the two characteristics often come in waves of either extreme and have struggled to coexist.

You’ll remember last year, when ESPN cut live to Harrison's second-round U.S. Open match against Sergiy Stakhovsky. After dismissing the big-hitting Ivan Ljubicic in a relatively easy four sets in the first round, the then-18-year-old put on quite a show during his exciting five-set loss in the second round. The American covered the court like Flushing's army of squeegees and, more promisingly, adjusted his strategy to charge the net every chance he got. "A guy with a one-handed backhand, and he was chipping a lot of them," Harrison said at the time. "Whenever a guy is chipping a return, it will kind of float and then land deep in the court, and then you're starting from neutral if you let the ball bounce." An 18-year-old identifying an opponent’s weakness and having the tools and mindset to capitalize? You have to like that.

Now, fast-forward a year. After a decent showing at Wimbledon that ended in a five-set, second-round loss to the relentless David Ferrer and a solid summer with semifinal appearances in Atlanta and Los Angeles, Harrison draws Marin Cilic, another tough opponent, in the first round of the U.S. Open. But this time, he showed his youth, failing to win a set despite having set points in both the second and third sets. He played extremely emotional tennis, smashing his racket and yelling at himself in frustration after missed shots. Sure, that display of emotion can often come off as childish and immature, a roadblock to his success. But I see a young man who believes he can hit the tough shots, who thinks he can beat anyone on any given day.

The forward-lookers (myself included) may have to show some patience with Harrison. But once these two ends of the spectrum meet, you’re looking at a highly motivated player with the arsenal and knowledge to be very successful.

Courtney Nguyen: When asked about Harrison's future earlier this year, Andy Roddick said that the things that make him annoying right now are what will make him a great player down the road. The same can be said about Tomic.

If I were one of those craggly old baseball scouts in Moneyball, I'd draft Harrison in the first round straight out of high school. He has that aura about him that seems so familiar. He walks the walk, he talks the talk, and his work ethic and commitment to perfectionism almost guarantees that he will consistently and gradually get better as he gains some years.

But when we talk about which player has more upside, I side with the lanky Aussie without hesitation. What I like about Tomic is his unorthodox game and his ability to generate easy power. At 18, he can already hit every shot in the book. Unfortunately, at this stage of his career, he also wants to hit every shot in the book, regardless of whether it's timely or prudent.

Much like Andy Murray, it will take Tomic time to learn how to use his shots, get comfortable being aggressive and figure out how to use his body. He's not as fast as Murray and that may serve as a significant obstacle down the road. But, unlike Murray, Tomic isn't scared to hit at the lines with pace. His serve is kooky but he's still able to fire it in there on 3/4 swing. He's shown himself to be fearless, though in fairness, there is, literally, a fine line between "fearless" and "stupid" when it comes to his shotmaking. It all depends on which side of the line the ball lands.

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Harrison is the sure thing. Tomic is the wild card. With Harrison, what we see is what we're going to get. With experience and some technical fine-tuning, he will continue to get better (though that backhand is still a question mark) and he'll be a very good player. His desire alone inspires confidence.

Tomic, on the other hand, still has untapped potential both in his game and his body. Could his serve be even more effective if he took a full swing? Can he get markedly quicker and stronger if he commits to his body in the offseason? Can he mature to be able to harness his game and learn to compete from first ball to last ball?

Question marks surround the young Aussie and he could just as easily crumble under the rigors of the Tour. But if he doesn't, if he commits and can answer those questions affirmatively, the possibilities are endless and exciting.

Sesno: One big factor going against Harrison in this debate is pressure. With Roddick fading and Mardy Fish's 30th birthday just around the corner, pundits are desperately searching for the next American star, the savior to bring the Stars and Stripes back to the dominance of decades past. We've seen how that pressure can affect a teenager's' results (see: Oudin, Melanie; Young, Donald).

But Harrison seems to be responding to external pressure by expecting excellence from himself. He trusts his game, and unlike Oudin and Young 1.0 (we'll save Young's turnaround for another day), he has a versatile game to back it up. He can fire powerful serves with impressive accuracy and blast forehand winners from almost anywhere on the court. He moves well in his 6-foot, 160-pound frame and has good court anticipation. While his backhand needs some work, he's shown the ability to generate decent power from the two-hander or a touch of finesse with a one-handed slice. He can charge the net or grind it out from the baseline. If he can fine-tune that arsenal with a bit more experience and not falter from that inner desire to win (see: Querrey, Sam), Harrison has great potential.

Without that level of high external pressure, Tomic will need to lean heavily on himself to reach his potential. Can he demand excellence of himself the way Harrison does?

Nguyen: No high external pressure? Tomic carries the weight of a continent on his shoulders and, unlike Harrison, he doesn't have anyone to help shoulder the load. At this point in their development, Harrison seems to want the spotlight insofar as he wants to be part of the discussion. Tomic still seems happy to fly below the radar. As Sam Stosur can attest, it's easy to avoid the pressure when 90 percent of the time you're playing your matches away from home soil.

While the question of whether Tomic can push himself is a fair one, I think it's also important to recognize that Harrison is no further along in his development in this capacity. It's easy to be fooled because it's admirable to see a young guy so fired up and isn't afraid to lay bare his intentions and desires. But while Tomic deals with a bad day by checking out, how many matches has Harrison lost because he couldn't get out of his own way? The methodology is different but the result is the same.

It will be interesting to see how Harrison handles those stretches where he's not getting the results he wants. Will maturity mellow him out? Or will time only increase his frustration? This is, after all, a guy who has said emphatically that he wants to be a multiple Slam champion in three years.

Regardless of all the questions surrounding Tomic's desire, his is the game that excites. When it comes to Harrison, opponents have seen his game before. Power baselining with good movement and touch. It's a tried-and-true formula. Tomic, however, has that little bit of something that gets into the head of his opponents. They're confused, they're uncomfortable and they get frustrated. If he can develop his game and not get complacent, he'll add some variety to the top of the men's game in the years to come. You decide: Vote in our poll above and sound off in the comments to let us know who you think has a higher upside.

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