Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rhyne Williams, Christian Harrison, and the long road back

Champaign, Illinois
Rhyne Williams. ©Jonathan Kelley

There they were, across the net from each other. Two comeback kids trying to restart their careers after a string of setbacks. Deep into a third set, well over three hours into a match that could pay big dividends down the road. 

For one, a 25-year-old former college star, back problems were what halted his progress at a high point in his career. For the other, the 22-year-old brother of a high-profile player, it was mostly about the hips and thighs.

Both blessed with plenty of talent, Rhyne Williams and Christian Harrison took very different routes to where they are now. But both have faced significant obstacles in their quest to fulfill their promise. The struggle, as they say, has been real. But both are now brimming with hope that they are on the right paths; still young, both can see themselves reaching newfound heights.

A win on Saturday in the Car-X Futures final would be a great stepping stone.

Getting to this point
After a fantastic junior career, during which he reached a high of #8 in the world ITF rankings and even won a Futures event at age 16, Rhyne Williams chose to attend the University of Tennessee, where he starred on one of the most talent-laden teams in recent college tennis history. After two years as a Volunteer (culminating with a three-set loss in the 2011 NCAA singles final to Steve Johnson), Williams turned pro and within two years had reached #114 in the world. He qualified for the 2014 Australian Open and drew Juan Martin del Potro, against whom he won the first set in an electrifying match. The next month he reached the Delray Beach ATP quarterfinals, beating Marcos Baghdatis along the way. Surely the Top 100 was around the corner. And then ... problems.

Williams started struggling with his back -- a herniated disc -- and by the middle of 2015 it proved too much.

"I had surgery on the low L5 S1, lower left back," Williams told me after his quarterfinal win on Thursday. "They just cut me open -- it's minimally invasive -- went in and shaved down the disc with the laser. Because my issue was the disc was just grinding on my nerve. So I had shooting pain all down my legs. Pretty much couldn't function."

That put him out for six months. "So they did that little repair, and I was actually healthy and ready to play in December. But I had another setback. I was on court in off-season, bent over to pick up a ball, I stood up and was like, 'Oh boy.' Could not walk for several weeks. I had 2 more herniations. So something crazy like that happens. Just a simple movement -- bending over, standing up and I did it again. So now I have 3 herniations."

Six more months out. He wouldn't return until this June of this year.

Christian Harrison, for his part, had already been forced to take a year and a half off as a teen due to a serious leg injury caused by a staph infection. Once he was able to return to tennis, still only 16, he eschewed the junior/college route and followed his brother, Ryan, into the pros. He won a Futures event at 19 and reached #351 in the world. And then ... pop.

"It was 3 years ago now, just over 3 years ago," Harrison said after his own quarterfinal win. "I had an adductor problem. I felt it pop in one of my matches, felt it tear. Ended up seeing some doctors, and tried doing some stuff to avoid surgery but just wasn't able to. And I'd already had that problem on the opposite side. So we decided that was the time to take care of both of my hips and adductors that were the problem. Originally we thought we could just have hip surgery on both sides and the problem was going to go away. But it didn't. Ended up having to do adductor also. In the meantime I had a little shoulder and wrist problem; that wasn't something that was killing me but it was something that I just had a little operation on both just to get it settled."
Christian Harrison tidies up. ©Jonathan Kelley.
(I told Harrison that I had noted quite a few teens getting hip surgery, and asked him his thoughts as to why. "If you look at how guys play now, they play with a lot more open stance, a lot more rotation, torque in the hips," he said. He also noted the change in equipment (both rackets and strings), and the concominant move to more western grips to generate more spin.)

Despite everything, Harrison stayed positive. He never forgot his goals. He would come back.

The Road Back

Williams spent the first half of the year focused on rehab. He is based at Saddlebrook in Tampa, Florida, where his fitness trainers, Dylan Smith and Chris May, are based, and where he worked with his "therapy guy," PJ Orgass. They have helped get him to a place where he can compete at this level. Smith and May, he said, "do an unreal job. They work with me, Denis Kudla, Tim Smyczek, Alex Kuznetsov. We have a really good group there. So Saddlebrook's really helping me out big time." 

"I really don't know how long it's going to last or how I'm able to play," he said. "But I just figured, 'Screw it, I have to give it a shot.' I honestly don't know how it's holding up. I've just done a ton of rehab, and I think that's been the key."

Williams returned to the court in June playing the qualies of Futures. He racked up 21 wins to only 6 losses en route to the Champaign final -- his first pro singles final since winning the Dallas Challenger in 2013. 

He declared, with no small hint of surprise in his voice, that the injuries aren't really affecting his game. "I feel like maybe I'm not in quite as good shape as a couple of years ago. But I feel like I'm moving just fine, serving fine. I'm not really limited out there. I definitely don't feel like I did pre-surgery, because I could not move a muscle. So I think things are looking up. As long as I can maintain where I'm at right now and just keep getting fitter, I think I'll be all right. We'll see."

(For the record, Williams said he was feeling good at the end of a four week stretch of hot, humid Futures in Illinois. When asked why he was stretching against the fence in the second set of his quarterfinal, he said it was due to concern about possible cramping -- not about the back.)

I asked Harrison to describe an average day for him when he was working his way through his layoff. "It was like 3 to 4 hours of rehabbing," he said. "I would probably sleep in -- I have trouble going to sleep if I'm not out playing tennis and getting tired -- so I was probably up until 2:00-3:00 every morning, and then I probably would sleep until 12:00-1:00 and then I would start my day at 1:30, going to rehab from 1:30-5:00, sometimes longer. I spent a lot of time with Jorge [Giral]," the physical therapist at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. "There I had everything that I needed. Countless guys helped me back. Another was Christopher Wheaton out in Vail. So I had tons of people as far as off-court stuff to get my body healthy again."

Harrison started his comeback slowly, playing World Team Tennis; doubles with his brother last year at Winston-Salem (they won their first round match); and then mixed doubles with another comeback kid, Victoria Duval, at the US Open. He returned in earnest this spring and had reached a couple of Futures quarterfinals before his run in Champaign, putting him on the cusp of the Top 1000.

Motivation and lessons learned

Harrison credited his past layoff with helping him through the more recent one. "I kind of knew what to expect a little bit better this time. Especially when I started back with tournaments, I was kind of aware of the things I wasn't doing well. It takes a while to get back into your routine at tournaments, just being around the guys again and learning how to keep yourself focused and just in that environment. That's a lot different, that you can't replicate in practice.

"So whether it was just writing things down when I was hurt, just being aware of the focus when I came back, I was already doing things like that to try to make it better this time."
Harrison also said the batch of younger Americans -- the Fritzes, the Tiafoes, the Donaldsons -- doing well has provided an extra push. "Honestly it's great for me because I can kind of compare myself with them and use it as motivation to stay with those guys who are coming up," he said. "Before I got hurt, they were younger so I never got the chance to play them. And now that they're breaking through, I haven't been able to see a lot of these guys play in person, but I do know them."

Given how much developmental time he missed, he notes, he's a similar "tennis age" to them. But, he adds, "You never want to get beat by a younger guy, especially from your country. It's good to see Americans doing well, but also from a competitive standpoint, it makes you a little more fired up."

Williams, too, has a higher-ranked, younger player he can point to for motivation: himself. He often thinks back to his matches at grand slams and other big tournaments. "Christopher, my cousin [and former coach], made me a really cool compilation of good points that he filmed over the 2 years that we were working together. So I actually go back and watch a lot of that stuff. It just really gets me fired up, to know that I've played at that level and I can do it again. It gives me hope. It's cool to look back at those moments. It's not every day that you're playing against Juan Martin del Potro in the Australian Open. It's cool to have that and I'm glad that Christopher made me that video, because I watch it once a week, maybe, especially in the tournaments."

Grinding it out

Despite their talent level, Williams and Harrison will need to grind it out to get to where they want to be. For both guys, wild cards will be less plentiful. And reaching the quarterfinals of Futures tournaments -- which often requires beating two very talented players -- only brings a few ranking points. “It’s pretty tough, honestly," said Williams. "Because the level is high here. Nobody out here is a plumber, I can guarantee that. Every match is tough. All these guys hit the ball like they're Top 300 at least. So it is frustrating when you feel like you're playing good tennis and you lose 2nd or 3rd round and you only leave with a couple hundred bucks and a few points. It is very tough. That’s why it’s so hard to get out of these and get to the next level. Because it grinds you down, that's for sure. So you really have to try and keep a positive attitude and just accept that you're going to have some tough losses, and you're going to leave some tournaments unsatisfied. That’s just tennis. But it’s always good to fall back on the experiences that I’ve had. "

"I know that I can play at a high level," he said matter-of-factly, "and as long as my body lets me I think that I have a good chance getting back there."

Harrison is also feeling positive. "Honestly right now I'm feeling better than I've felt yet," he said. "I was exploring around with treatments before and I finally found something I feel like is really clicking for me. Especially now I'm way more confident in myself to be able to not just play and not worry about getting hurt, throwing myself around the way that I need to; but also that I'll stay healthy. I still have a couple of hurdles that I'm going to get over, just naturally as you're coming back; if you see guys that come back from a lot of surgeries, they might be playing for a year or two but it still takes them a while to get their body feeling where they need, and for me that's why I'm going to make sure that allow more off weeks and if I feel something that I'm even the slightest bit unsure of then I'll just rest or take it at that time. But that's how I'm going to do things a little bit different this time around."

One thing Harrison has been working on is his timing -- a notable asset for him already. "I work on it all the time," he said. "You watch these top guys and, whether it's like Nishikori who trains down at Bradenton or David Ferrer. You know, they're not as big as some of these other guys that are able to get a lot more cheap points, but you watch them, and the timing of their strokes, just being able to really take balls on the rise, learn how to keep it short, holding that baseline and learning how to take time away from their opponent once they see them off balance. that's something that I really try to work on probably where that comes into play, because I try to utilize that in my points. That's something that I've been really trying to work on last couple of months."

The final

I wasn't able to witness the final, but it looks to have been quite the classic. After both guys had gotten to the last match without dropping a set, the two warriors went at it (according to the ITF live scores) for three sets. 231 points. 

3 hours and 34 minutes.

After winning the first set in a tiebreaker, Williams couldn't capitalize on his 5 break points in the second, and was broken himself in the sixth game. In the final set, Harrison raced to a 4-0 lead, but Williams chipped away to 3-4*. However, neither player could muster a break after that, and three games later, the match was over, along with the tournament, and this swing through the Land of Lincoln.

FINAL: Harrison d. Williams 6-7(2) 6-3 6-4. 27 rankings points for Harrison (back into the Top 700) and 15 for Williams (good enough for Top 750). A big help.

What's next

Williams' next stop was back to Saddlebrook, where he works with John Isner's coach Rene Moller, who is the director of tennis, and with coach Andrew Banks. After that, "I think I'm probably going to go to Canada. There are 3-4 $25Ks in a row [in late August/early September]. But it's funky -- It goes outdoor hard to green clay to outdoor hard to indoor hard. So I really don't know what to think of that. Maybe play 2 or 3 of them. I don't know. But I'm probably going to need a couple of weeks off after this, that's for sure." Then his goal is to try to get into the draws of the fall indoor challenger events that in recent years have comprised the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Challenge. "I always play well at those. Indoors is great for me. So who knows. If I can get my ranking up high enough to get into those then definitely, that would be huge. So that's the goal I guess."

Harrison is also planning on going to Canada for those Futures. The one thing that might delay that trip? A potential wild card to US Open qualifying. "I'm still waiting to hear. You know, I haven't been able to play a lot so I haven't had a chance to get my ranking there, but I'm hoping, if I can continue to do well here and prove that I'm healthy that I'll have a chance there, but it's tough to say because there are so many good younger American guys that they might want to give a chance with the USTA." He said that would be "completely understandable," considering he got some of those opportunities when he was their age.

Both guys can use all the help they can get on their roads back. They are still quite young by modern tennis standards, when ATP and Challenger finals between players in their 30s has become commonplace. And both have the ability to play world-class tennis.

As long as their bodies let them.

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