March 25, 2012, 3:45 pm
Lessons Learned in a Loss to Federer
By CRAIG O'SHANNESSY
Before Roger Federer was Roger Federer, he was Ryan Harrison.
That’s to say that before he won 16 Grand Slam singles titles and $70 million in prize money, Federer was also a promising teenager who also lost to the best in the game on center court, like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin.
Federer defeated Harrison 6-2, 7-6 (3), on Saturday in the second round of the Sony Ericsson in Key Biscayne, Fla., in a match that both players can ultimately feel good about.
For Federer, it’s all about adding another title, which would be a record 20th Masters Series championship.For Harrison, a 19-year-old American, it’s all about not freaking out. It’s about gaining experience and composure and putting himself in situations where he can learn the art of winning big matches.Harrison’s new coach, Grant Doyle, was not happy with how the match began but saw hope and promise with how it ended.
Doyle, an Australian former tour player based in Austin, Tex., worked with Harrison part time for most of 2011 and took over full-time duties last November.“Ryan started the match hitting the ball too short, with too much spin on his forehand, and just waiting for Roger to miss,” Doyle said. “He has got to get himself in these situations more often to learn how to better handle it.”Harrison was broken twice in the opening set, getting in only 48 percent of his first serves. When his first serve did go in, he won 10 of 12 points (83 percent), but missing so many gave him major exposure to his second serve, on which he won only 4 of 13 points (31 percent). Federer made 13 of 19 (68 percent) of his first serves, which meant he had to hit only six second serves, where he won four.
Lesson No. 1 — the first serve is the protector of the second serve.
Doyle also did not like how the patterns of play were developing, with Federer able to control the baseline rallies with his run-around forehand.
“In the first set, Roger was just standing in the ad court and teeing off,” Doyle said. “I had a feeling he would come out hot after Indian Wells. He was just camping in the backhand corner and dominating. His defense in the ad court is phenomenal as well.”
Doyle’s strategy to counter Federer’s strength was to get Harrison to run him hard to the deuce court, where his forehand is more likely to break down.
Lesson No. 2 — it is more important to hit the ball where you opponent does not want it than where you want to hit it.
Harrison settled down in the second set and was able to impose himself a little more in rallies, particularly in breaking Federer when he served for the match at 6-2, 5-3.
With the match in the balance, it was the Federer forehand that all of a sudden started spraying balls everywhere.
Harrison said he felt better at controlling his side of the court and was therefore able to apply more pressure to the other side.
“I started hitting my ball cleaner and with more authority,” he said. “My body language and energy got better, and that put some pressure on him. It was about keeping my cookies together when things were not going well.”
Lesson No. 3 — good things happen when your mind is not fighting itself.
What looked comfortable for Federer suddenly became a dogfight. “I felt like I had to win the match like three times at the end, so I was relieved to come through,” Federer said.
In the second set, Harrison made 52 percent of his first serves, which was a slight improvement from the first, but he got a lot tougher on his second-serve points, winning 13 of 21 (62 percent). Federer still won this battle, winning 9 of 13 points (69 percent) on his own second serve, but Harrison was now in the hunt.
Federer’s wayward forehand suddenly settled down and behaved in the tiebreaker. Doyle was happy with Harrison’s comeback and said he thought he was a little unlucky in the tiebreaker.
“Ryan played a good tiebreaker; Roger painted a couple of lines, and that’s why he is the best player in the world,” Doyle said. “At the end of the day it was close, but we have still got a long way to go.”
Doyle said he was working on making Harrison’s first serve a more consistent weapon, but pointed out that Harrison’s second serve is one of the best in the game. Harrison hits huge topspin on his second serve and in his mind thinks he swings harder at it than on his first serve.
“I hit my second serve with everything I have got and I just hope that it comes down,” Harrison said in a discussion we had in line at the pasta bar during the week.
“I learned to hit my second serve first, and my first serve is just a flatter version of it,” Harrison said.
Doyle is also working on flattening Harrison’s forehand, which produces big topspin but too often lands too short in the court and does not hurt his opponent.
“His backhand was also a weakness last year, but that is getting a lot stronger as well,” Doyle said.
Harrison is 9-8 this year and is ranked 73rd — not far off his career high of 65 in February.
Doyle is no stranger to developing American talent; he also directed Sam Querrey for more than five years during his ascent into the world’s top 50. He also works with a South African, Fritz Wolmarans.
Doyle said the goal for Harrison in 2012 is to break into the top 30. “If he can get there and be seeded in the big events, he won’t have to play an opponent like Federer in the second round,” Doyle said.
Lesson No. 4 — position yourself for success.
Matches like these are steppingstones for Harrison; the real value is not in winning the match but in developing and preparing his mind. The reality of tennis is that good losses, like this one, precede good wins. Before Harrison can beat a player like Federer, he must first lose to him.
This match was a physical test to see what works and what has to improve. It was also a mental test to see if Harrison can handle playing a legend of the game on center court.
Lesson No. 5 — in order to succeed, you must first fail. Be thirsty to learn from your opponent.
This match is an integral part of Doyle’s 2012 master plan, and the lessons learned from playing Federer will serve Harrison well as his goals and beliefs merge as the year unfolds.