Down two sets to love and trailing three games to love in the third against No. 11 Gilles Simon on Tuesday, Donald Young found himself in familiar territory at the U.S. Open: Headed for an early exit.
Young’s career has been characterized by oversized expectations and constant disappointment. As a 14-year-old in 2004, the promising American told the Tennis Channel that his goal was to “win all of the Grand Slams more than once,” and for a while that statement didn’t seem so outlandish. Young became the world’s top junior in 2005, and in 2007, he captured the Wimbledon boys’ singles title. He appeared to be the likely heir to America’s golden generation.
Instead, Young has fallen short, bouncing in and out of the ATP Top 100 and never advancing past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Seven of his 10 U.S. Opens prior to this year have ended in first-round defeat.
But in the middle of Tuesday’s third set, Young suddenly resembled the player that captured the collective American tennis imagination 10 years ago. Under the most unlikely of circumstances, nearing elimination against a player whom he had never beaten in five attempts—more jarringly, a player that had never conceded a single set to Young—the southpaw Chicago native flipped the narrative of the match and his career, staging a remarkable comeback over the next nearly two hours and pulling off a 2–6, 4–6, 6–4, 6–4, 6–4 victory.
Young, now 26, has defeated higher-ranked players than Simon in the past, and he even reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 2011. But before Tuesday, he had never come back from two sets down to win and had never beaten Simon in five previous matches—a comeback seemed unlikely. He decided to let loose.
“I was going to go down swinging,” Young said. “That was pretty much my mentality at that point.”
After recording 36 unforced errors in the first two sets, Young cut down on his mistakes, limiting his unforced errors to just eight in the fifth set. He dominated the net, winning 73% of net points, compared to just 58% for Simon.
A few years ago, Young might have handled Tuesday’s deficit differently. Early in his career, he struggled with the weight of expectations, and he even considered quitting tennis early on in his professional career. “I felt like I wasn’t good enough, felt like I should go to school now, just hang it up,” he told The New York Times in 2007. “I didn’t feel I deserved to be in the locker room.”
Even three years ago, Young’s mentality was still an issue. His mother, Illona, told The New York Times after a crippling loss in 2012 at Wimbledon that she felt her son’s tennis was in good shape, but that he needed to get his mind “healthy.” At the time, Young said that he didn’t want to think about seeing a sports psychologist.
Young admitted after Tuesday’s match against Simon that in the past he might have beat himself up over his poor play in the first two sets. When something went wrong, he often “bailed” on the match. But he eventually came to realize that his physical gifts—the speed and coordination that helped make him such an impressive prospect—weren’t enough to succeed at the highest level of tennis.
“I kind of got the physical part out of the way, which was a big thing for me,” said Young, who has since seen a sports psychologist and reads self-help books to keep his mind sharp. “That didn’t by itself take me to where I wanted to be, so I figured the other aspect is pretty important.
He added: “I feel like tennis is pretty much all mental and it’s always been mental for me, because I could play and the skills weren’t really the issue. It was between the ears and it was dealing with adversity.”
In the past, Young’s big victories—like his 2011 win over Andy Murray at Indian Wells or his 2011 victory over Stan Wawrinka at the U.S. Open—haven’t led to sustained success. But in three hours and 34 minutes on Tuesday, Young showed something he’s struggled with in the past: perseverance. And his victories earlier this year over Tomas Berdych and Bernard Tomic suggest Young’s emphasis on the mental game could be paying dividends, even if he’s a long shot to make a run in New York.
“It’s just a mindset, it’s like a switch. I have been able to really turn that switch on a few times lately, and I want to have it on all the time,” Young said. “That’s what I’m working on, the consistency.”