Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated over-hyped junior tennis player of all time has finally made a splash at the senior level.
American Donald Young has sailed through to the last 16 of the US Open Men’s Singles, where he will meet fourth seeded Andy Murray for a spot in the quarter finals.
At the age of just 22, Donald Young has already been a professional tennis player for seven years. Before turning pro, Young won the prestigious under-16″²s at the Orange Bowl at 14, then followed it up by winning the Easter Bowl under-18″²s. A feat which neither Pete Sampras, who made the Easter Bowl semi-finals at 15, nor John McEnroe, who won at 17, equaled.
When he turned pro at the tender age of 14, he was instantly signed by Nike, Head and sports management giant IMG, making him instantly one of the most sought after sports commodities in the game.
But that’s where all the fun and games abruptly ended. For the next six years, Donald Young would spent the vast majority of his playing days on the lesser Challenger and Futures tours, occasionally qualifying for a top-tier event before being given a harsh lesson in professional tennis and sent straight back down to the minors.
However, this week, after years of qualies, challengers and futures tournaments, Donald Young has worked his way into the second week of a major where he will have a shot at earning a spot in the quarter-finals.
Taking down Lukas Lacko in straights in the open round, then Swiss number 14th seeded Stanislas Wawrinka 7-6 in the 5th, before downing Argentinian 24th seeded Juan Ignacio Chela in straights, Young has not had the easiest draw. He’s played two legitimate touring professionals who by rights should have taken the upstart to task. But Young stepped up and outplayed these guys, earning victories which no one is disputing he earned fair and square.
His opponent in the fourth round, Andy Murray, is no stranger to Young. In fact, the American has a 100% winning record against the Number Four ranked player in the World. Granted, they’ve only played just the once, but it was on American hard courts in a Masters Series event and, more important, it was this year.
Having qualified for and making it to the second round of Indian Wells, Young had his best win to date, downing the Scot 7-6 6-3 before losing in the next round to Tommy Robredo 6-0 6-4. While this victory was seen at the time as a mark of a dejected Murray who’s third Grand Slam final loss had finally taken it’s toll and crushed his spirit, it may well have been an early indication that Donald Young is finally ready to live up to his expectations.
Donald Young’s game and subsequently his ranking, has improved steadily for the last couple of years. Although he first dipped his toes in the scolding waters of the top 100 back in 2007, and again in 2008, before sharply pulling them back in favor of more tepid waters on the futures circuit, his most recent climb back into the top 100 has been much steadier since he fell to 231 back in November of ’09.
This has culminated in his best achievement to date, reaching the semi-finals of the US Open Series event in Washington, where he beat 18th ranked Jurgen Melzer and former top ten player Marcos Baghdatis.
These results, along with the his run at the Open may well herald the coming of the forgotten chosen one.
However, a lone run at a major tournament doesn’t always [read: rarely] foreshadows a raise to stardom. This counts double when it takes place in the player’s home country, where the tidal wave of fan support creates an environment unlike that of any other time on the tennis calender.
For an example of this, you need look no further than fellow American Melanie Oudin. Although two years Young’s junior, the two share a great deal in common. Both come from the Atlanta area, experienced a great deal of success on the ITF Junior Circuit (Young reaching #1 and Oudin #2 in the World Rankings), turned pro in their teens and subsequently spent most of their time on the second tier of the professional circuit before making their big break at the US Open.
Oudin’s run in 2009 was nothing short of miraculous, beating four Russians, including Elena Dementieva, Nadia Petrova and Maria Sharapova in becoming the youngest American tennis player to make the quarter-finals since Serena Williams back in 1999, where she subsequently lost to Caroline Wozniacki 6-2 6-2.
Oudin backed up this breakthrough by only managing one more victory in 2009 (beating 801 ranked Aki Yamasoto) before going on to lose in the first rounds of both the Australian Open and Roland Garros, and the second rounds of Wimbledon and the US Open the following year.
So does this mean that Donald Young’s current form is merely a fan-fueled flash in the pan, which will fizzle out as soon as the wild rapturous mania of the US Open is over?
It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that someone with such a storied junior career may in fact be a late bloomer. However, this may well be the case.
When a child prodigy such as Young rises through the ranks, speculation is so abundant that one can only fail. Perhaps now the pressure is off, he can play to his potential, rather than trying to live up to the hype.
He may well never be a Grand Slam Champion, or a top ten player, but a failure that does not make.
When a player is touted as being the one to fill the gap left by Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang, a fourth round appearance doesn’t quite cut it. But, to anyone else, making the last 16 of a Major is a big deal, and one which should be celebrated.
Young isn’t Pete Sampras, but he’s one hell of a player, and should be congratulated for his achievements this week.