Monday, May 26, 2008

Donald Young: Finally living up to the hype?

I finally saw the tennis documentary, “Unstrung”, on ESPN this weekend. The filmmakers follow the tennis ambitions of seven teenaged American tennis players, their families, and their coaches, during the months leading up to the 2005 U.S. Junior Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Three of the teenagers happened to be African-American. One of them is named Donald Young Jr.

Around Donald, there has been hype aplenty, starting from age 14 when he won the Orange Bowl junior tournament. At age 15, he won the 2005 Junior Australian Open, becoming the youngest player ever to win a junior Grand Slam title. He closed out the year ranked as the Number 1 junior.

Under the guidance of his tennis-playing parents, Donald promptly turned pro. Many thought that he was too young, but there has been precedence in tennis of players going pro at his age. His parents signed on with IMG, a powerful sports-marketing firm, which provided Donald with his own agent. Contracts were penned with Head and Nike. And Donald’s parents did not miss an opportunity to tell the world how fantastic their son was and how bright his future. Really, tennis had been lost without this Donald, who was hailed as the next big thing, targeted to fill the void left by the retirement of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and the underachievement of Andy Roddick. Donald himself played along with the hype in media interviews, bigging himself up well beyond his 5 feet 9 inches stature. Some say that it was the hype that eventually crushed him.

As a result of his early successes, and assumably with some influence from IMG, Donald started receiving wild cards into ATP main events. Many became embittered on behalf of the players who were bumped out of tournaments to accommodate This Donald.

And then Donald came crashing down. He lost 10 straight ATP matches in 2005. His detractors felt vindicated. He became unwelcome in the locker room, a boy pretending that he was ready to be a man. With his baseball cap lodged permanently sideways, and sporting flashy diamond earrings, Donald looked like a hip-hop troll who had gotten off on the wrong stop. On tennis forums everywhere, posters gloated that he deserved every beat down that he received. Psychologically minded fans wondered about the effects of all this negative attention on the psyche of a 15-year-old. Some questioned the wisdom of his parents in allowing their son to be exposed to such scrutiny.

But like Richard Williams before him, Donald Young Sr. made his motivations crystal clear. In a New York Times interview in June 2007, he was quoted as stating, “If you had the opportunity to play in a pro event, make 5 or 10 thousand dollars, losing in the first round versus losing in a Future making $137…Your hotel is paid for, you’ve got a car to drive around in. Is there any comparison?” Apparently all Donald’s father could hear was the sound of the money piling up – $77,871. to be exact, kaching! – because even a loss at these tournaments would help offset the expenses associated with this sport.

And to be fair, tennis is an expensive sport. Despite his being their only child, it could not have been cheap for Donald’s parents to finance their son’s ambitions. Or their own, on his behalf. But to allow him to be placed in such a horrific situation could easily be characterized as a form of child abuse. The victim however defended his parents’ choices, insisting that he was gaining valuable experiences.

Finally, mercifully, the USTA stepped in to take some control of the situation. They established a partnership with the Young family and offered to lend Donald financial and coaching support under two conditions: They would be the ones controlling his schedule, and they would provide him a full-time USTA coach. They put an immediate stop to his acceptance of wildcards into main events. Donald was dispatched to playing Futures events – the types of tournaments that young players grind through in order to gradually improve their game and their ranking. With success, Donald would be rewarded the occasional wildcard.

Donald also returned to playing junior events, and won Junior Wimbledon two weeks before his 18th birthday. Some junior players felt cheated, noting that a player who had been allowed to gain ATP experience was suddenly being allowed to play with juniors again. They felt that it was unfair. Donald was being rejected on all sides.

Things started improving in 2007. Donald put together a string of solid Challenger results (34-14), including four finals and a title at Aptos. His biggest breakthrough however came at the US Open where he made it to the third round, winning his opening match against Chris Guccione, and then benefiting from a walkover against the injured Richard Mathieu. He eventually lost in four sets to Feliciano Lopez. His performance in 2007 allowed him to close out the year ranked 106. It also helped that he grew three inches. Donald had finally managed to silence some of his critics.

But he continues to struggle at big events. His better results continue to be at Challenger-level tournaments. He lost to Wayne Odesnik at San Jose in February 2008. This is the same Odesnik who beat Guillermo Canas at Roland Garros yesterday and succeeded in immediately making a name for himself. Donald Young is scheduled to face Robby Ginepri tomorrow. I expect him to lose.

Sam Querrey [photo on right] is another of the American teenagers featured in “Unstrung”. He has already won an ATP Singles Title (Las Vegas) and is currently ranked 40 to Donald’s 83. Sam lost today after playing a solid match against Roger Federer. In the movie, he comes across as an affable and easy-going teenager who likes to please others. His mother seems equally laidback and supportive.

Donald’s parents are quite another story. There is a moment at the end of “Unstrung” that made me wince. Donald's father is being interviewed about his son’s prospects. He announces that Donald will become the Number 1 player in the world and will win countless Grand Slams. It is an ouch-inducing moment.