FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Fans were hanging off the rafters high above the stadium like rowdy revelers crammed into every inch of Times Square anxiously waiting for the ball to drop on New Year’s Eve. And on the Grandstand Court below Ryan Harrison carried the crowd to the very edge of erupting in delirium, earning three match points in the fifth set tie break against Sergiy Stakhovsky. Then the 24-year-old Ukranian turned the tie break into heart break for Harrison.
Looking like the loneliest man in the building, Stakhovsky dug in and made a spirited stand.
The skinny Stakhovsky showed stubborn competitive backbone and a spirit as spiky as his Brillo-pad haircut in roaring back to win the final five points of the breaker to post a 6-3, 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(6) victory in a dramatic duel that was one of the most exciting encounters of the tournament.
Harrison, who had played with the poise and purpose far exceeding his 18 years, was down a break in the fifth set but battled back, put one foot inside the baseline and blasting a backhand pass down the line to break back for 4-all.
Playing the first five-setter of his career, Harrison continued to press the issue, but Stakhovsky, who carried a six-match winning streak onto the court, refused to yield before a crowd chanting “Let’s Go Ryan!” throughout periods of the fifth.
This was a throwback tennis with both men playing all-court tennis in propelling each other to explore virtually every corner of the court as 172 of the 343 points played were decided at net.
Trailing 2-3 in the breaker, Harrison sprinted rapidly to his right like a kid chasing a runaway rental car that had his racquets trapped in the trunk, caught up to the ball and rifled a running forehand pass down the line. By the time Harrison had skidded to a stop he was so close to the side wall he probably could have high-fived fans leaning over the railing.
Stakhovsky, who covered the line, went airborne in a full stretch dive as his body bounced off the blue court but his backhand clipped the net and died as Harrison evened the breaker at 3-all.
That stirring shot sequence brought the fans to their feet and Stakhovsky looked rattled by the resounding rorar as he scraped himself off the court and delivered a double fault to fall behind 4-3.
Two points later Harrison had triple match point at 6-3.
Stakhovsky, who won New Haven last weekend, saved the first two match points on his serve smacking an overhead winner on the first and a service winner on the second.
Serving on the third match point, Harrison, who had been effective hitting his kick serve to Stakhovsky’s one-handed backhand, dared to delve near the sideline, but missed his first serve. In the ensuing exchange, Harrison took a slight backward step and pushed a high backhand into net, for 6-all.
“I was trying to make sure I got the first serve in and trying to put pressure on him and missed that one barely,” Harrison said. “And then I wanted to play a long point and give myself an opportunity where I wanted to try to break him down and he didn’t miss. I ended up missing and then just kind of fell apart from there.”
Then the nerves constricted his right arm. Harrison sent a double fault beyond the service line, donating match point to Stakhovsky.
“It just wasn’t smart,” Harrison said of his eighth double fault. “I didn’t go about it the way I should have. I went for a big serve on the first serve at 6-all. Looking back, I probably should have just controlled that one in and looked for a forehand or for a first volley. But you know I can’t change it now.”
Attacking behind a stinging serve that pushed Harrison off the court, Stakhovsky blocked a high forehand volley crosscourt then crumpled to the court ending an enthralling encounter and turning magic into misery for Harrison.
As impressive as Harrison was competing on court, his sense of perspective following a gut-wrenching loss was equally as absorbing.
No tears, no excuses and no alibis. The son of a tennis coach who reads the game as comprehensively as a graduate student scouring a textbook, Harrison views the biggest match of his life as a learning experience in creating a career.
“Obviously, I’m not the happiest person in the world right now,” Harrison said. “But looking back on it, it was a great experience. My ranking is 220 in the world right now, and I’m trying to hopefully get to to the top 10. So I feel like one match doesn’t make or break that. It’s the experience of playing these type of matches that is really going to help me get there.”
Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com