At the SAP Open yesterday evening, two talented American players in very different stages of their careers met in the headline match. Ryan Harrison, the up-and-coming 19-year old, was coming off of his career best season last year, but had failed to get much momentum during the tour’s swing in Australia. He met Robby Ginepri, ten years older, who was trying to get back to the top level of the men’s game after breaking his arm in bicycling accident in October of 2010. The pair put on a high-quality tennis match, but in the end, youth was served when Harrison came away with the win, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(0).
As the match progressed, it became very difficult to ignore the resonance of the fact that these two players were poised at the opposite points in their career arcs. Ginepri is a three-time ATP titlist, former world number 15, and made it to the U.S. Open semifinals in 2005, losing to Andre Agassi. Ginepri was one of the American players coming up in the twilight of the era of Sampras-Agassi dominance, along with Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, and James Blake. He’s not ready to call it quits on his career by any means, and his renewed dedication to tennis developed during the time off his injury required, when he was able to get some perspective on what tennis meant to him. Judging by his performance tonight, he should have a few good years left in him.
On the other hand, Ryan Harrison is at the head of the new generation of American players, who were well-represented at this tournament. Denis Kudla bested Jack Sock and then gave veteran Andy Roddick a scare, but all three 19-year-olds should have promising tennis careers ahead of them. Thus far, it is Harrison who has demonstrated the greatest ability to capitalize on his potential. Last year, he reached back-to-back semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles, losing to top American Mardy Fish in both tournaments. He’s yet to have a signature win or claim his first title, but his tenacity and firepower have kept him on everyone’s radar.
The pair battled gamely from the very first, each taking turns at demonstrating their offensive and defensive skills. Both showed that they were able to strike powerful, penetrating ground strokes off both their forehand and backhand wings, as well as scramble and scrap their way back to a neutral position after their opponent had struck a particularly good ball. Harrison managed to break Ginepri and serve out the first set, but his level subsequently dropped enough for Ginepri to take the second set handily.
Once the third set began, both players began playing more consistently, and the match quickly began to heat up. Neither player was able to get a chance to break their opponent, until the very end of the set. Serving at 5-6, to try to get the match into the tiebreak, Harrison found himself down two break points – match points. On each of the two points, Ginepri did all he could to take the match. He attempted a scorching cross-court passing shot on the first, but Harrison managed to make a stellar lunging drop volley. On the second, Ginepri was forced to play a defensive lob, but Harrison had just buried an overhead into the net on the previous point. When he got his second chance, he made no mistake.
After saving those two match points, Harrison seemed invigorated in the tiebreak, while Ginepri was regretting his missed opportunities. The first point of the tiebreak went against sere when Ginepri missed a drop volley, and with his first two serves, Harrison produced a pair of powerful serves up the middle, neither of which Ginepri could get back in play. Once he was in a 3-0 hole, it proved to be too much for the elder American to dig himself out of.
There are times when being in Ryan Harrison’s shoes, with a decade of tennis ahead of you and innumerable opportunities along the way, makes it easier to swing freely in the pressure moments, as he did when he was down match points. For Robby Ginepri, he might have been wondering how many more chances like this he was going to have. Those thoughts can make it very difficult to play the kind of fearless tennis that Ryan Harrison produced yesterday.