Tennis

Big game of Raonic will test Harrison

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Matt Cronin

Matt Cronin is a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and the co-owner of the award-winning TennisReporters.net.

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif.

Tennis is a game that thrives on individual rivalries because it’s a one-on-one sport, and rivalries are built on contrasting styles and personalities.

Caroline Wozniacki

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On Tuesday at the BNP Paribas Open, the so-called future of U.S. men’s tennis, 18-year-old Ryan Harrison, will take on the here and now of Canadian tennis, 20-year-old Milos Raonic, in the third round.

The tournament’s more recognizable male stars — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick — still are in the tournament. When they go out to practice, the rafters are packed to the brim; but for now, the main question buzzing on the grounds is: Who will be a better long-term prospect, the bold Harrison or the more soft-spoken Raonic?

The two played three times as juniors, with Harrison winning two out of the three contests, but those results are borderline irrelevant because both have since improved by leaps and bounds.

The huge-serving Raonic has been the ATP Tour’s newest flavor since he won the San Jose title last month, while Harrison sputtered much of the past two months before coming to the desert, partly because of a chaotic coaching situation and partly because he’s still an immature player.

On the other hand, the 6-foot-5 Raonic already has won 16 matches this year. Among them: a run to the fourth round of the Australian Open where he upset No. 10 Mikhail Youzhny; a charge to the San Jose title where he bested top-10 player Fernando Verdasco; a run to the Memphis final where he knocked off Verdasco and Mardy Fish before falling to Roddick in a third-set tiebreaker; two wins in Davis Cup on clay against Mexico; and this week at Indian Wells, another win over the 15th-ranked Fish.

Raonic can crush first serves in the high 140-mph range, can kick in second serves in the high 120s, dictate with his hard forehand and put away tough volleys.

“You look at him, and you say, OK, I think he’s gonna be in the top 10 at some point. It would be hard not to,” Roddick said. “He returns pretty good; he serves great. I can speak from experience — when you have a weapon like that, it’s almost like on-the-job training, but, even your bad days you can still compete.

"What is tough to predict is if you have a top-10 guy who (is) in and out maybe between 10 and 20, has a good year, comes back, or is he a guy who is going to consistently be in the top 5 for a long time. That’s between the ears, and that’s a little tougher to predict.”

Harrison is a little tougher to get a grip on.

He’s a very good all-around player but does not have an overwhelming weapon. In some ways that might not matter because if you look at Djokovic, who is undefeated this year and has won two Australian Opens, it’s not as if you can point to one thing in his game as the main reason why he’s successful. Perhaps you cite his superior movement, but in reality, he also has a rock-solid backhand, a powerful-yet-still-improving forehand, a terrific return game and now a dependable and forceful big serve that makes him an all-around player, not just someone with a huge serve or overwhelming forehand.

So there is hope for Harrison, even though it likely will take him a bit longer to develop than Raonic because from the time he first started playing, his father Pat, a former collegiate standout and teaching pro, wanted to make sure that his son could hit every shot in the book. That’s why the 6-foot Harrison is comfortable serving and volleying, going down the line off both wings, trying to rip the ball crosscourt, lacing deep approach shots and then punching away crisp volleys. When he’s good, he’s very good, but when one area starts to crumble, the rest of his game can fall apart, too.

Some of that he attributes to having too many options on his plate and not committing to one particular play during points.

“That was the biggest thing that I tried to do today differently than I have had in other matches at this level,” Harrison said Monday after his 6-3, 7-6 (4) win over Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. “When I got to big moments, I picked something and I went with it. I didn’t doubt myself, and I didn’t look back on it and think it was a bad decision. In my head, I was weighing the options of what I thought had the highest-percentage chance of working, and I went with that. If it didn’t work sometimes, it was all right, but it worked more often than not.”

When Roddick first came on tour full time in 2001, he was allowed to progress at his own pace because Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi still were around as star players. It wasn’t until Agassi retired in 2006 that Roddick had to step up front and center and become the American man at every tournament he entered.

The same goes for Harrison — sort of. Roddick was given a little extra breathing room because Sampras and Agassi were great players who, when they retired, had combined for 22 Grand Slam titles. All Harrison has to buffer him is Roddick, who has been an extremely consistent top-10 player over the past nine years, but who has won only one major title, the 2003 U.S. Open.

The 28-year-old Fish has had a solid past 52 weeks, but it’s unlikely he’s going to win a Grand Slam title before he retires. John Isner, 25, and Sam Querrey, 23, both are ranked in the top 35, but neither has done major damage in a Slam or at a Masters Series event.

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Unlike Canadian fans, who are starved for any type of decent player, American fans demand top-flight competitors. So the top of Harrison’s head is smoking from the heat of standing under the microscope.

He doesn’t seem to mind.

“It’s an honor to be mentioned in the same name and sentence as the guys that have been before," he says. "I’m doing everything I can to work hard and to put myself in the right positions to come through and make it there. I certainly believe in myself as much as anyone can believe in themselves.

"I have complete intentions of winning Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world and hopefully being a Davis Cup leader.”

That’s very ambitious for a guy who is ranked No. 152, but he is one of the youngest men in the top 200. Now what he has to show is that he can go toe-to-toe with Raonic, who will crack the top 35 in the rankings whether or not he beats Harrison.

Raonic, for one, does not look at Harrison as a guy who has just fluked into the third round. He realizes how hard the American competes, how he can hurt Raonic with his serve and force him to come up with spectacular shots.

“He’s a fighter, he’s feeling good, he’s gonna go for his shots, he’s gonna play and he’s gonna do a lot of things,” Raonic said. “[But] I feel like I’m posting up a lot of top-20 wins, top-50 wins consistently, and I think that’s something to be proud of and something that isn’t by luck or by chance. It’s just a sign of my level.”

Harrison will not acknowledge he’s the underdog in the first match of a pro rivalry we should see for years to come. He’s going to have to take care of every opportunity against Raonic’s second serve, because the “The Maple Leaf Missile” is downright near unbreakable. What Harrison must hope for is to get the big Canadian into a backcourt dogfight like they used to have in the juniors and out-gut him.

“He’s playing great, and he’s made a lot of improvements in his game, especially on the ground,” Harrison said. “I remember him from juniors. He’s a big guy. He’s finally reeled in his groundstrokes. I do have full confidence in myself, and I feel I can win.”

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