Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Young and Done?

All Bling, No Zing

For some reason (numbing inertia?), I sat through two sets of dull tennis last night, watching the Tennis Channel's Cincinatti Open first round match between Frenchman Gaels Monfils and USA hopeful Donald Young (picture at left). I had heard a lot about the "promise" of Young (especially from fan John McEnroe), a 19-year-old African-American prospect who, like the Williams sisters, is coached by his dad. He was an unseeded wildcard in this tournament, but as a Yank playing in Cincy, he would have the crowd behind him and hometown advantage had he shown anything. But after watching him lose 6-1, 6-1 to a listless, obviously ailing Monfils, I've concluded that other than being a lefty, there's not much to Young. He just doesn't have any obvious weapons other than his natural athleticism. He lacks a big serve and isn't patient when serving. His forehand has lots of topspin, but no pace and he can't hit it for winners. His backhand is two-handed and strictly defensive. And he's a baseliner who can't hit hard or deep with the big boys and isn't comfortable coming into the net.

Worse, he's chosen to crack the ATP instead of refining his Not Ready For Prime Time act on the Futures or Challenger Circuits (I would question his decision-making as much as I would Michelle Wie, who has floundered playing against men when she probably could have competed well against her female peers). He has a lifetime 8-26 record in the ATP, where - amazingly - he took a set off Novak Djokivic at the 2006 U.S. Open. Even more unbelievable to me is the fact that Young was briefly ranked the #1 junior player in the world in 2005, when he was the youngest male to win a Grand Slam Event, winning the 2005 Australian Open Junior Championships.

But at 19 it's time to get your act together. Michael Chang won the French Open at 17. Pete Sampras won the U.S. Open at 19. But Young is no prodigy in their class. Watching him, I found myself turned off by his immaturity and court attitude. Like a young Agassi, he has the surface bling - both ears studded with earrings, the rope-a-dope necklace, his hat painstakingly angled askew in the current hip-hop fashion - but at least Agassi had game. No one hit groundtstrokes like Andre, even at that age.

My advice to Young: don't dress the part, be the part. Put the bling and accessories away until you've earned the right to be confident and flashy (try winning something!). If ever a match was gift-wrapped for you, it was against Monfils, a clearly superior player but one who looked like he was suffering from a 24-hour bug or food poisoning.(Why is it the fittest-looking players seem to be the ones most plagued with injuries? Monfils has a long list of ailments.) On this night, Monfils was gasping for breath and sweating like he was in a hot yoga class from the first game on. I think the only reason he didn't retire early was because he knew all he had to do was stand on the other side of the net and let Young self-destruct with his poor serving and unforced errors. Not a lot of intense volleying going on, in other words.

Young looks to have a long ways to go before he gets to Monfils level. The only thing the two have is common is the fact that both are former top junors. The 35th-ranked 22-year-old Monfils was world No. 1 junior in 2004 when he won three of the four junior Grand Slam events (Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon) and this year made it to the semifinals at the French Open before losing in four sets to eventual runner-up Roger Federer, 2-6,7-5,3-6,5-7.

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