Is Donald Young ready to shine?
October 6, 2011 · Print This Article
From 2007, the first time I saw him sneak a lefty forehand up the line and follow it with an improbable drop volley, Donald Young has reminded me of Marcelo Rios.
The strengths are largely the same: Early ball-striking, lefty spin, great speed and feel. The shortcomings, though, are also similar: A lack of serving power and bludgeoning groundstrokes means having to work harder than most players, but the off-court reputation does not suggest a willingness to do that. Furthermore, both players are shorter and lighter than their contemporaries, making it easier for them to succumb to the physical grind of the tour.
If they’ve got this much in common, what explains the divergence in their results? At age 22, Young is only now cracking the top 50, just reached his first tour final and still has a losing record on the ATP Tour. Rios disappointed many by never winning a major, but at the same age his number of titles had cracked double digits, he’d reached a slam final and had gotten to No. 1 in the world.
Watching Young struggle since he won his first ATP Tour match in ’07, I’ve considered a handful of differences between them as possible explanations:
• Rios was a child of privilege playing for Chile, a nation with little in the way of tennis history. His arrogance was legendary, but the flip-side of that was confidence, in that he never seemed to question whether he belonged among the best of his era. Young, on the other hand, is a much shyer personality bearing the weight of a nation still eager to see someone fill the shoes of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Only recently has he seemed to have adapted to that pressure.
• Rios excelled on two surfaces, hard and clay, meaning that aside from the extra-short grass court season he was a threat year-round. Young, like many of his compatriots, is far less comfortable on clay or grass than hard. With little to no momentum building for him on the clay or grass seasons, he starts the US Open series cold every year.
• Rios played in an era where baseliners were just beginning to monopolize the tour, and his unique game plan was far more of a threat in those days. By the end of his career he was being dominated by the likes of (pre-Slam-winning) Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero. The game has only tipped further in the direction of brutal, grinding play since Rios retired, meaning he couldn’t have duplicated his results now and Young can’t either.
There’s probably some validity to all of these points, but watching Young at his lowest moments – getting waxed in round one of last year’s US Open by Gilles Simon, or by Marin Cilic at this year’s Australian Open – a much drearier thought kept coming to mind: Maybe Young’s just not as good. His stellar junior career created a lot of promise, but it’s not like David Wheaton kept outperforming Sampras once they reached the professional tour.
That thought thankfully occurs less frequently these days, as Young has raised his ranking from outside the top 100 to No. 43, as well as scored some wins over highly ranked players, the latest being No. 9 Gael Monfils in Bangkok. Watching him beat the much bigger and more powerful (and probably faster) Frenchman by hitting earlier and closing in on the net brought back memories of Rios toppling the towering Mark Philippoussis and Greg Rusedski.
No more are the days in which Young has to qualify, or wins a convincing first round match only to roll over in the second.
In fact, against Monfils Young rallied not only from losing the first set, but falling behind a break in the second and third. His win over Stanislas Wawrinka in a fifth-set tiebreak at the latest US Open may have put him on the map, but his third set ‘breaker against the big Frenchman was a much tighter affair. In it, he demonstrated a resolve that has not been a trademark of his until recently.
But just as was the case in the US Open, Bangkok showed revealed his limits. In both cases, they were demonstrated by Andy Murray, the current world No. 3, is also known for winning without power but who, at 6’3” and with a potent first serve, is more capable than Young of winning with it.
At the US Open Murray allowed Young just seven games in three sets. In Bangkok it was even worse, with Young winning just two games in two sets.
But even in these defeats the young American’s remarks indicated the presence of encouraging traits Rios rarely showed. He could’ve reacted with bitterness or indifference in Bangkok, but instead said he was proud of his results and acknowledged that Murray was too good that day.
Despite the early publicity, it’s looking likely that Young will finish with the same number of Grand Slam titles that Rios did. In the era of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic that need not be seen as a disappointment, though, especially if Young demonstrates more heart than Rios along the way.