Harrison shows well but not ready to break into sport's elite echelon

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Ryan Harrison fell in straight sets to Novak Djokovic on Centre Court.

Ryan Harrison fell in straight sets to Novak Djokovic on Centre Court.

WIMBLEDON, England -- The trajectory of every star in the history of tennis can be traced back to a single match. Often these arrivals take place at the Grand Slams, the sport's four bedrock events, and what makes them most interesting is how seldom anyone can see them coming.

Among tennis wonks, they're known in a kind of shorthand: Nadal over Federer at the 2005 French Open; Federer over Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001; Sampras over Lendl at the 1990 U.S. Open. And so on.

So it stood to reason that if Ryan Harrison is indeed the future of American men's tennis, as he's been so trumpeted, there was a chance his second-round match with Novak Djokovic on Wimbledon's hallowed Centre Court on Tuesday could represent his coming-out party.

And make no mistake: nobody would have seen this one coming. Sure, British oddsmaker William Hill had installed Harrison as a substantial but not astronomical 12-to-1 underdog, and the buzz was palpable when the players took the court to a starscape of popping flashbulbs under the closed retractable roof. The 20-year-old even seemed to have the crowd behind him when he uncorked booming aces of 123, 129 and 131 m.p.h. in his first two service games.

But the reality is Harrison entered Tuesday's match with a modest record of 37-44 at the tour level, including a mark of 0-14 (now 0-15) against opponents ranked in the top 10. And while he may have had the physical gifts to make it interesting, which he certainly did at times, the ruthless Djokovic was able to rely on his superior quality and consistency to win 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 and book a third-round date with either Radek Stepanek or Benjamin Becker.

That said, everything that's made the scouts and observers salivate over the Shreveport, La., native was on full display Tuesday evening: the thunderous serve, the deft net play, the effortless movement. In no way did Harrison shrink from the moment, and what a moment it was. Perhaps most importantly, he kept his emotions in check, which hasn't always been a given in the past. The closest he came to one of his notorious turns came late in the match, after he'd saved Djokovic's first match point before gifting him another -- the last he'd need -- with a careless error.

"I think he has great potential," said Djokovic, who is bidding to become the first man to retain the Wimbledon title since Roger Federer in 2007. "He's very young still. He looks very professional. He looks like he has nothing to lose on the court, and he wants to win regardless who is across the net, which is a great mindset for someone his age."

He's just not there yet. And Djokovic most definitely is.

The difference in class was evident on the key points. Djokovic was 3-for-3 on break-point opportunities, while Harrison was 0-for-6. Compounding the American's frustration was the fact all six of those chances happened in the same game.

With Djokovic serving at 2-3 in the second set, Harrison went ahead 0-40 and the audience began to murmur with excitement. But Harrison squandered three break chances -- then a fourth, fifth and sixth -- and Novak ground out the hold. The game took 13 minutes. Djokovic needed just six in the ensuing game to break Harrison and take permanent control of the match.

It's been nearly a decade since an American man last won a major, a drought that's only stoked America's desperation for a fresh face. Harrison popped on the radar as a 15-year-old, when he became the youngest player since 1990 to win a tour-level match. But Djokovic's insists there's no hurry.

"There is time," Djokovic said of Harrison's development. "He needs to get experience playing on a big stage. He needs to work on his shots in the game. He knows better than I do."