Young can still fulfill promise

Donald Young
Donald Young is having the tournament of his life at the US Open.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.


John McEnroe ruined Donald Young. Young’s parents ruined Donald Young. His own bad, lazy attitude ruined him. His agent, IMG? Ruined him. The media: Ruined him. The U.S. Tennis Association?

2011 US Open

2011 US Open

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Ruined Donald Young.

Young has been a study in all the different ways to screw up an American tennis phenom. He was supposed to be tennis’ Tiger Woods. By 2007, The New York Times dubbed him a failure with a story in its Sunday magazine entitled: “Prodigy’s End.”

He was 17 at the time.

But the last, last, last straw didn’t come until this spring, when things dropped so far that Young wrote on his Twitter account: “F--- USTA” and they’re “full of s---.” Only he didn’t use dashes.

So it’s a little hard to figure out how Young, now 22, is the story of this year’s US Open, after Serena Williams that is. He has beaten two seeded players to reach the fourth round, the final 16. He beat Stan Wawrinka in a classic fifth-set tiebreaker, tennis’ ultimate test of mind, body and guts. Tuesday, he’s scheduled to play No. 4 Andy Murray for a spot in the quarterfinals.

“Everybody’s light comes on at their own time,” Young said. “Hopefully, mine is coming on now.”

These phenom stories are all mapped out. Either a sudden emergence, or a straight arrow to the top. Anything less is how a 17-year old winds up being labeled a failure.

There has always been too much reality in Donald Young’s fairy tale. Is it possible to take all the wrong steps to the mountaintop?

Or, here’s a thought that tennis fans won’t accept. Maybe Young’s parents were right all along. Right to take the money from an agent when their son was a young teenager. Right to turn him pro as a kid against men, getting him crushed every week. Right not to trust the USTA and its pros.

Donald Young


First round: def. Lukas Lacko, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4
Second round: def. 14 Stanislas Wawrinka, 7-6 (7), 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (1)
Third round: def. 24 Juan Ignacio Chela, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3
Fourth round: vs. 4 Andy Murray

Of course, another possibility is that Young is just on a two-week joy ride now, where his talent is overwhelming his mishandling.

I’m going with this: We don’t usually know all the details behind the scenes of a prodigy. With Young, we saw too many of them because he was part of a PR plan. Now, he isn’t behind any reasonable expectations, just behind those McEnroe, IMG, Nike and his family sold us.

Young is ranked No. 84, and will move into the 50s now, at least. He still doesn’t work hard enough, and doesn’t have the footwork. But everything is improving, and you simply don’t know who will take the final steps to the top.

Former No. 1 Jim Courier, the US Davis Cup team captain, said on CBS that he’s not sold on Young’s work ethic yet, not sure he’ll maximize his talent.

Roger Federer said that Young has “has been real good at a very young age. His coming onto tour was rather complicated, I think. Getting a lot of wild-cards (free passes into tournaments) and getting a lot of help creates a lot of pressure, right?

“So that’s hard to live up to. I had expectations, too. But I had them when I was 17, 18, 19. He maybe had them when he was 15, 16, 17. It’s a big difference. Seems like he’s making his move now.”

Young, Ryan Harrison and several young US women who reached the third round of the Open have made this quite a tournament for US tennis.

Usually by the second week, Serena Williams is the only American left.

Tuesday was supposed to be America Day at the Open, with not only Young scheduled to play but also John Isner and Andy Roddick, but rain storms washed out the day's entire schedule. Now all those players — and Serena — will be on court Wednesday.

Donald Young shakes hands with Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland

Donald Young's win over Stanislas Wawrinka was one of the biggest of his career.

Julio Cortez

If you don’t know Young’s story, the legend started when he was 10, a ballboy at a senior tournament in Chicago who talked McEnroe into hitting a few balls with him. McEnroe was so impressed that he ran straight to his phone to call IMG and suggest signing him.

Like I said, that’s legend. Actually, IMG set it up, having McEnroe hit with a kid to gain attention. Young was a good-looking, black kid from inner-city, corporate-heavy Chicago, heading to a traditionally white, country club sport. Young was talented, with super soft hands and touch. But he also was a marketer’s dream.

McEnroe, still tennis’ biggest seller in the US, began telling the world that American tennis was going to be OK, that Donald Young was coming. When Young was in his early teens, his mother, Ilona, told me she was fighting off agents. It seemed noble. Then, Young was signed with IMG.

Now, IMG all but owns the tennis tour, and does own several tournaments. It got Young, then 15, into several pro tournaments, getting wildcard entries, meaning he wasn’t ranked high enough to get in, but got a free pass without having to play qualifying events. Young got in based on his name, and was hyped by every newspaper and TV station in any town he went to.

He was the great American hope.

The truth is, you cannot project a top men’s player by 18, much less by the fourth grade.

Young took such regular beatings on court that you could read it in his body language, as he moped around or gave up.

“You know, I was doing things that hadn’t been done, so you get opportunities that normal people probably wouldn’t have gotten at the time,” he said the other day. “I was 15, No. 1 (junior) in the world. You know, like, what the heck? Give it a shot. I might have won a couple matches, but it didn’t come off. Of course, it starts to build on you, and doesn’t get any better.”

You can imagine what happened. Young wasn’t making it. His parents didn’t think the USTA was helping enough. The USTA was willing to help with finances and coaching, but wanted some control over its investment. Young’s parents, who teach tennis, wanted to keep control.

Hard feelings emerged. Young continued to fail. He was offered top coaches, but passed. Once, Young told me that Patrick McEnroe, John’s brother and the head of USTA player development, wrote him a letter saying that if he didn’t leave his family, then he was going to be cut off. McEnroe denied that the letter was that forceful, but acknowledged in his book that he felt Young’s biggest problem was his parents.

Young’s family didn’t trust the USTA, which had not had recent success in developing players. On top of that, there was the disconnect of a black, inner-city kid mixed with a game’s white, wealthy infrastructure.

Young said he wouldn’t abandon his parents. He and his parents dug in. The USTA dug in.

Patrick McEnroe complained publicly that Young didn’t practice enough, and when he did, he was hitting with high school buddies, not serious players. Young denied that, but has since acknowledged that he wasn’t working hard.

What a mess.

People gave up on Young time and again — I thought he lacked mental toughness and footwork — but he started to do well in the minors. His relationship with the USTA seemed to improve, too.

“I went down to LA for close to a month with the USTA in Carson, trained with Mardy (Fish) and Sam (Querrey), hit with Pete (Sampras),” Young said. “That was only a couple times. Worked out with the trainers they have there.

“We were doing two a days in the gym, two a days tennis, which is more than I've ever done before. I think it's starting to pay off now.”

Sampras, a serve-and-volleyer, beat Young, a groundstroker, in a groundstroke game and needled him, calling him a princess.

Young started to beat a few good players, including Andy Murray and Marcos Baghdatis. He reached the semis in Washington and it seemed he had one more shot at success. But then Harrison surpassed Young as the American hope and got treatment that bothered the Young family.

And when Young didn’t get a wildcard into this summer’s French Open, he flew into a fit with the “F--- USTA” tweet. Soon after, he shut down his Twitter account and apologized.

But maybe that one tweet helped to clear the air?

“Definitely not,” Young said.

He said his relationship with the USTA is good now, and that if he had anything to say, it would be to thank officials for all their help.

When Young beat Wawrinka, Patrick McEnroe tweeted that Young had become a man.

So now, finally, this thing is going to work out?

Courier said he isn’t sure, pointing out that Young has gone back to working with his parents. Even Young notes that he was still losing to guys ranked in the 300s as recently as July.

“To go from losing a first-round challenger (minor leagues) in Aptos to the Round of 16 of the US Open is great. I've definitely had the lows. Hopefully I'll have a lot more highs.”

He will. More lows, too. His story shouldn’t have been Prodigy’s End, but Fairy Tale’s End. But reality can have a happily ever after, too.

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