The U.S. Open is often a barometer of American tennis and its prospects for the future, but appearances can be deceiving. Ryan Harrison struck just about everyone as the real thing, a clever and imaginative kid who has every right to think big. The women's side -- and that's two years running -- has the look of a mirage.
Melanie Oudin, the darling of last year's event, admitted she was "kind of relieved" to make her quiet, second-round exit this time, just to unload the burden of pressure. That's not a good sign, although there is precedent. When Pete Sampras returned to Flushing Meadow to defend the title he so shockingly won in 1990, he was clearly and publicly relieved to have fallen short, referring to "the monkey on my back." He was widely criticized for that comment, with a furious Jimmy Connors leading the charge.
We all know where Sampras went from there, but Oudin's case is entirely different. Deep down, I think she realizes she doesn't have the talent to consistently compete with the top players on tour. There's some insecurity in play, manifested in her performances under stress, suspect body language, and her after-the-fact admonishment of fans urging her on (not always delicately) from the stands.
At the height of tennis' popularity in the 1970s, you never heard Tracy Austin or Chris Evert -- two of the greatest teenage prodigies -- admit to any sense of relief over a loss. They knew they had the stuff, that it would be only a matter of time before they destroyed the competition once again. Oudin, as well as this year's 18-year-old sensation, Beatrice Capra, are not reminiscent of those long-ago stars in any way. Measured against today's elite standard, they could not be more ordinary. They also play in an entirely different era, ruled by powerful, mature women at the peak of their physical and mental capacity.
Oudin and Capra are delightfully young, with so much ahead of them, but I just can't imagine either making a serious dent on tour. In a sport consisting almost entirely of baseline specialists, playing in monotone with only traces of ingenuity, what can a young player do to improve? Hit the ball harder? I'd advise every young player to study Francesca Schiavone, such an enthralling all-court player at the age of 30, but the next-generation kids ever paid any attention to Martina Navratilova during her prime, so why would things be any different now? It has been decades since the top juniors took even a moment to work on bullet approach shots to the corners, the crosscourt backhand slice, or the science of volleying.
Harrison is quite a different story. It has become annoyingly common to hear outright indictments of the all-court game, claiming it simply isn't possible to play net-rushing tennis in an age of sophisticated racket technology. Don't bother going up there, in other words. You'll get passed into oblivion.
It sounds valid enough, and there's plenty of evidence around the tour, but it's hardly an absolute. Schiavone, for one, has defied all convention. She's out there alternating slice and topspin, leaping for outstretched volleys, hitting Federer-like shots between her legs with her back to the net. She's everything we'll never see in Caroline Wozniacki, no matter how well the top-seeded Dane masters the baseline. Schiavone is an athlete out there, easily the most watchable player on tour. There's still plenty of room for that. As she says so endearingly, "It's a mix, like capricciosa pizza. I don't give you margherita, I give you capricciosa -- different kind of ingredients."
We've seen many images of old-school tennis in the men's draw: Novak Djokovic looking sharp at the net, Michael Llodra playing conventional serve-and-volley tennis (brilliantly, in defeating Tomas Berdych), the one-handed backhands of Stan Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet and Mikhail Youzhny. (Wawrinka hit a thunderous down-the-line backhand, against Andy Murray, that John McEnroe called "one of the greatest I've ever seen.")
And then there is Harrison, that rarest of tennis creatures: He grew up with an open mind. Insiders have seen him coming since he turned pro at 15, but this was the first time he'd successfully qualified for the U.S. Open, and he arrived with an arsenal. Listen, when CBS' Dick Enberg described the Wozniacki-Maria Sharapova baseline exchanges as "delicious" or "fascinating" on Monday, he was dead wrong. They represented every scene on every court in every women's tournament, only with more power and conviction. To me, "fascinating" is Harrison scrambling all over the Grandstand court, people going crazy during his unforgettable five-setter against Sergiy Stakhovsky, fans leaning over the top row of the adjoining Louis Armstrong Stadium to get a glimpse of the bedlam below.
Harrison doesn't necessarily fashion his game after Stefan Edberg or Boris Becker; he just figured that a net-rushing attack would work best against Stakhovsky, "a guy with a one-handed backhand and he was chipping a lot of them," Harrison said. "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."
How encouraging that he spotted that opening at the age of 18, and had the tools to execute his plan. That's what makes tennis fans feel good, not two people crushing identical groundstrokes at each other from the baseline, and Harrison was just as impressive in his post-match remarks. He was devastated in the immediate aftermath, having blown three match points (at 6-3 in the fifth-set tiebreaker), but then he acknowledged the scene:
"I mean, that was incredible. There were some balls that I ran down, and win some points, just because of the energy and electricity that I felt from the crowd. The body felt good. I felt energetic. The crowd played an incredible part in that." He also admitted being "a tennis fan, a tennis freak. I follow it when I'm not even practicing. I just love watching it, being a part of it."
Judging from the reaction to Harrison's play -- from fans, media and USTA officials with an eye on tomorrow -- the feeling is mutual.