By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE, Australia - The United States has rarely had a shortage of promising teenage men and from the looks of it, Ryan Harrison may just someday be put in the category of a Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick as a young player with elite potential.
The Louisiana-born Harrison leads an impressive young group into the 2011 Australian Open, as four other Americans qualified on Sunday, with CoCo Vandeweghe, Jaime Hampton, Irina Falconi and Donald Young all coming through. None of those players are older than 22.
"Go America!" said Hampton, who just turned 21 last week.
Harrison enters the 2011 season and Australian Open with a lot of hopes and given his progress last year, there are few reasons why he shouldn't be able to make a substantial jump this year. He may be a couple of years away from making a Chang or Sampras teenage run to a Slam title, but he's good enough all around player to have sizeable impact and seems to understand the challenges ahead of him
"Ryan has a huge work ethic already and is firmly committed to exploring all the angles to try to find his best tennis," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier. "He's still young. He's still raw. But he's going to get there. What 'there' is we don't know. We don't know what the top in potential is there because there are a lot of factors, not just the physical ones, but the mental ones, how do you deal with pressure once you get to a certain level? You can only find out once a player gets there. He's a great raw talent. He's a great worker. He wants it very, very badly. So that's really positive."
Harrison had a very decent 2011, highlighted by his US Open splash, where he upset No. 17 Ivan Ljubicic and then took a classic 6-3, 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(6) loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky. He also qualified for the indoor event in Bratislava in the fall, and this season. he qualified for Brisbane and lost a tough two setter to No. 4 Robin Soderling. Last week, he played an exhibition in Adelaide, teaming with arguably the greatest doubles player ever, John McEnroe.
Since the age of two, Harrison worked diligently on forming an all around game with his dad Pat, a former collegiate standout. He can serve and volley, slice, bury balls off both his forehand and backhand side, hustle on defense and take the gloves off on offense. He isn't always that accurate, but when he's on it's clear that once he fully matures that he'll own an admirable all around game that will be feared.
Currently ranked No. 172, Harrison earned his way into the Australian Open by winning the USTA Australian Open Wildcard Playoff for the second year in a row, this time with a hard fought 7-6 (3), 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-4 victory over Jack Sock.
After watching the final, general manager of USTA Player Development Patrick McEnroe said that Harrison was one of the best competitors that American tennis has.
"I think Ryan proved in this tournament that he's a great young talent and that he's probably our best competitor right now,' he said. "Ryan just has that great competitiveness that you can't teach. He's worked very hard, and he's gotten himself into great condition so I'm just really excited to see him get another shot at a Grand Slam in Australia. He's such a different player now than 12 months ago when he was there."
Last year in Australia, Harrison lost to Janko Tipsarevic in straight sets. This year he'll go up against France's Adrian Mannarino in the first round and is in a reasonable section of the draw, where he could face the up-and-down veteran Richard Gasquet in the second round and possibly Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych in the third round, who has been struggling as of late.
Donald Young also struggled for much of 2010, but he had a productive off-season working at the USTA Training Center in Carson and has run through the qualifying draw, crushing Izak Van Der Merwe 6-3 6-1 on Sunday. Courier met with Young in December and still believes the former Aussie Open boy's champ has top 50 stuff.
"He has so much upside potential," Courier said of Young, who will face 2010 Marin Cilic in the first round. "He really is a terrific striker of the ball. He's leaving a lot on the table because he hasn't been in great shape. He also just hasn't made that jump from a ball-striker to a tennis player. I'm hopeful that he'll keep the level of commitment that he showed [in Carson] by being out there on his own for a couple of weeks. If he can keep that up and keep the training and keep pushing forward and take his knocks, he's without a doubt a top-50 player. It would be a real waste if he didn't reach that at a minimum."
None of the young U.S. women who earned main draw spots had come through qualifying at a major before, although Vandeweghe did win a main draw sport last year by winning the USTA Playoff. Hampton crushed Irina Dentoni 6-4 6-2 to earn herself a first round match-up with Britain's Elena Baltacha. Vandeweghe overcame Sesil Karatantcheva 6-4, 6-2 and will face France's Alize Cornet, and Falconi bested Nuria Llagostera Vives 6-2, 6-2 and will go up against 24th seed Alisa Kleybanova.
Hampton, Falconi and U.S. Fed Cupper Melanie Oudin all train in the Atlanta area and know each other well. While much has been made of the gap between the Williams sisters and the rest of the American women, there is no question that having three players 21 and under qualify is a very positive sign, let alone the fact that another three young U.S. women - Oudin, Alison Riske and Christina McHale - got directly into the main draw.
"We've got a good group," Hampton said. "The Williams sisters set the bar high and it's hard to live up to that. We have two of the greatest players ever. But I think we our group is looking to get to the second week of the Slams and eventually be contenders and I think that's realistic."