At the San Jose event in early 2005, the 15-year-old American Donald Young played his first professional tennis match against countryman Robby Ginepri.
The elder American battered the younger one 6-2, 6-2, surrendering nary a sniff on his own serve and only marginally more on Young’s. The youth, then one of the world’s elite junior players, looked very young indeed on court with a pro, even one known as a journeyman.
The next two-and-a-half years did little to improve the young American’s confidence. He failed to win a main draw match and didn’t win a set until the 2006 US Open (surprisingly, he took the opening set from future world No. 3 Novak Djokovic before falling in four).
The low point almost certainly took place at the Miami Masters in 2006, when Young was double-bageled by unheralded Argentinean Carlos Berloq—who lost by the same score against James Blake in the following round.
That’s a dubious distinction that may never be repeated.
There may have been good intentions behind the decision to play him in pro events that young. Perhaps, like Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati, he would learn to adjust to the velocity and physicality of the pro game early. One problem, as Tim Ruffin pointed out a few weeks ago, is that boys reach physical maturity later than girls, and even Hingis and Capriati later suffered tumultuous careers as adults.
In 2007, Young played more challenger events and actually began scoring wins over players who had achieved reasonably strong results in the pro circuit. By that summer, he appeared to have progressed greatly, winning his first main draw match in Indianapolis before pushing then world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko to a 7-5 third set.
After that match, the Russian stated that Young had the best forehand-backhand combination of any active American pro. The press reacted with incredulity to the idea that Young could be considered better in that respect than Andy Roddick or James Blake, but Davydenko refused to retract.
At the Open, Young won his first Grand Slam match, beating the huge-serving Australian lefty Chris Guccione. When Richard Gasquet withdrew from their second round encounter due to illness, Young advanced to face Feliciano Lopez.
Lopez was in fine form during that event, as one of only two men to win a set off of Roger Federer. Therefore, Young’s tight four-set loss to the Spaniard was encouraging, especially since it was mainly attributable to rookie mistakes.
That fall, Young served as a practice partner for the U.S. Davis Cup squad, helping keep Roddick, Blake, and the Bryan Brothers warmed up during their winning campaign. Through his U.S. teammates, word spread to Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim that Young had the goods and would be in the top 50 by spring.
Looking back, one wonders which year they were referring to. The number of main draw matches Young has won since then could be counted on two hands, and his career record stands at 10-34.
The lack of attention he’s gotten since then may actually be good for him, as the pressure from American fans used to winning should diminish. But for him to do what certain experts say he can, he needs someone to believe in him. Not just anyone, though, but someone who can provide him with expertise, much as Tim Gullikson did for Pete Sampras and Brad Gilbert did for Andre Agassi.
He’s a long way from their level, but there are many reasons to hope he can make it. It’s never fun to see that much talent go to waste, for one thing. For another, just to have him in the top five would do a lot to prove that tennis is a place for players of all backgrounds.
Finally, Young would be good for fans because he doesn’t win with power.
When we talk about left-handed players, those who only recently became fans of the game may think of the Spanish contingent of Lopez, Fernando Verdasco, and Rafael Nadal, all of whom are hulking power baseliners whose lefty playing arm provides them with different angles with which to crush the ball.
Young is from the older tradition of Rod Laver and John McEnroe (as well as Henri Leconte and Marcelo Rios, who had similar flair but much less success putting it to use in majors). Players such as these employ a greater variety of pace, spin, and placement, along with a willingness to try shots no one else has thought of trying.
Laver and McEnroe were products of their time who served-and-volleyed. Young is a child of the 21st century who plays the backcourt, but based on his reputation and some of the shots he hits while improvising, he’s got the same feel for the ball.
Hopefully, Young’s name will not turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which those who knew of him come to see him as a perpetual youth who never found out how to become an adult. With any luck he’ll find the right mentor soon; both he and tennis would be better for it.