for streaming video clips of Young's unique forehand and backhand, plus his serve-in-progress, check here:
Introducing, Donald Young
By Joel Drucker
Probably it was a good thing for Donald Young that he was pummeled in his ATP debut Monday night at the SAP Open in San Jose. At 15, Young was up against Robby Ginepri, a physical American who plays a grinding game akin to Jim Courier. In 50 minutes, Ginepri manhandled Young, 6-2, 6-2.
A quick summary of the Young backstory: Six years ago, Young ballboyed a Senior event in Chicago. The man running it, IMG's Gary Swain, saw Young hitting and was so impressed he asked him to hit with his star client, John McEnroe. After checking out Young's talents,, McEnroe said, "The sky's the limit. He has hands like someone else I know."
A year ago, Young turned pro (Swain's his agent), but these days the USTA permits players to compete as pros and play junior events. Though this means Young is ineligible for college tennis, to me the USTA's policy represents a refreshing form of libertarian candor. Instead of wondering if he should or shouldn't turn pro, Young now has financial security and the worthwhile pressure of an ongoing junior career. Rather than just learn how to lose at ATP events, he's learning how to dominate the juniors. Last month he became the youngest player to ever be the world's number one-ranked junior.
So why was it good that he lost? Well, let's view the world had Young won. Likely he would have played some scintillating points – scrambles, great shots, lots of high energy, a sense that his entire life had been leading up to one Monday night. In the wake of a victory, he also would have inhaled the message most dangerous to a growing tennis player's mind: Look at me. My stuff works. I'm good enough. I've got the goods – right now, let's go. Bring on Roger, Andy, Marat, Lleyton.
Instead, Young was waxed by a reasonably-proficient player. Compared to Ginepri, Young's drives lacked pace and, even more damaging, sustained depth, particularly off his backhand. Though he uncorked several nifty forehands and, as you'd expect from a lefty, a few brisk serves into each corner, he clearly had no way to hurt Ginepri.
It's tempting to say that Young is just 15. What more should we expect? After all, he's physically slight and has only just begun weight training.
But it's Young's long view that most interests me, and while I detest the word “potential” for all the credibility gaps it creates, I'd prefer to say I'm impressed most of all by Young's vision – that is, by what may emerge as his big picture concept of his game.
Young did not try to make the Ginepri match the be all and end all of his career. Young's feet, racquet, and body were relaxed throughout the entire match. Granted, he was nervous, and at times this made his whole game look sluggish. But it's clear he's in the middle – or perhaps, as a pro, just the beginning – of a quest to make himself something other than an amped-up junior phenom.
Think of others roughly Young's age who came right out of the box, batteries included, primed to compete in the pros – Michael Chang, Aaron Krickstein, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Arias, Lleyton Hewitt. All of these players were strong baseliners. They had a certain skill that was well-developed and they instantly brought it to the party.
Young – at least I like to think – is onto something else. It was hard to see this last night since Ginepri shoved him around so convincingly, but it appears to me (and I've seen him play at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open juniors) that he's trying to build a highly-versatile game. As McEnroe noted years ago, he's got superb hands.
What does that mean in today's baseline-dominated game? Don't expect Donald Young to become a pure serve-volley player. But certainly expect him to emerge as a player with a diverse set of tools, an all-court player not afraid to vary spins, paces, drives, sorties to the net. And to commence this R&D phase at 15, amid a fishbowl that he's willingly created, will take both courage and time.
If precocious baseliners come with the batteries included, then all-court players are more like a cool stereo system that takes a while to assemble. Young's still trying to amalgamate components, calibrate the volume, bass, and treble.
In this sense, it's even harder to tell if he'll actually get there than if he was a more prosaic baseliner. I'm not saying he will or won't emerge as a top pro. I hope he does, as his kind of game could be quite pleasing to watch (full disclosure: I'm lefthanded). I also hope he takes his share of losses in ATP events over the next two years – all the better to keep learning. Win or lose, no matter who the opponent, I can't wait to see his next match.