By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE – Ryan Harrison has always been one to put his nose to the grindstone, but after a difficult 2013 that saw him catch an aggressive virus in the fall and have to shut his season down early, he was more serious than ever about upping is fitness level.
For the first time, he spent five straight weeks at the USTA Player Development Headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla. He finally left on December 23, when back to full health he boarded a plane for Brisbane, Australia, to play the qualifying.
“Everyone you talk to is going to say they had a killer offseason, but I did everything I possibly could,” Harrison said. "I don't know what everyone in the world was doing it the offseason, but I hope they weren’t doing more than I was.”
Harrison trained under the legendary fitness trainer Pat Etcheberry, who has taught dozens of top players including two former No. 1s, Justine Henin and the United States current Davis Cup captain Jim Courier.
“I wanted as strong as an offseason as possible and I told Pat to hold me accountable like he would a Jim Courier,” said Harrison, who also hired a traveling physio, Ryan Curtis. “I gave him everything I had.”
The 21-year-old Harrison also worked diligently on his technical game. The private coach Brad Gilbert came down for a week to Boca as a consultant, and like USTA men’s coach Jay Berger, he encouraged him to try and strike big forehands after his serves as a way to attack his opponents. They told the 6-foot-1 all-courter to go for his shots on his first strike off the ground. Harrison practiced it again and again in practice and got more and more comfortable doing it, saying that he now does it well.
The Louisiana native also worked on making his backhand more offensive so he can push his foes back and establish court position.
Harrison considers Berger his head coach, but he is currently traveling with another USTA coach, former Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson. Harrison and another young American, Denis Kudla, are sharing Gullikson as they are playing similar schedules.
Harrison broke out as a pro earlier than his peers, which is perhaps why the expectations for him have traditionally been higher.
“It was me and Rhyne Williams and Chase Buchannan and I used a competitive instinct that I had to work harder and not get complacent,” he said. “I think t’s great to be around Denis and Bradley Klahn (another USTA-coached player) and train with them. I respect them, love them to death, but if I am doing sprints, I don't want to lose to them in anything.”
Harrison reached a career-high ranking of No. 43 in 2012, but after finishing 2013 with an 11-21 record, his ranking sat at No. 99.
At the start of this season, Harrison qualified for Brisbane and Sydney, but he lost in the first round of both. Still, he did win six matches at the two locales as opposed to two losses.
Harrison has now been on tour since 2010 and has no intention of hanging around the Challenger level, although he is willing to compete in them to get his ranking back up. But in 2013, he admittedly doubted himself.
“For whatever reason last year I just let the pressure and the circumstances let me mentally fold, and that's something I had never done before,” he said. “My MO coming up was: I’m not going to fold and I was going to win a lot of matches in three sets and compete the hell out of people and turn matches around. The standard I want now is no points off, no points for granted, and have it be a complete battle all the time.
“I’m doing a long-term thinking process, whether I win or lose or draw, I’m going to stay on the path to the Top 10. Ranking-wise, the initial goal is to get back to the Top 50 and the see where it goes from there.”
Harrison is a self-confident person and won't back away from matches of any kind, but he has had some rough draws at the majors, including having had to play two members of Big 4 at the Australian Open, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
And while his opponent in the 2014 edition of the Australian Open, 25th-seed Gael Monfils, is not a Grand Slam winner, he is former Roland Garros semifinalist and Top 10 player.
Harrison isn’t favored in the contest, but perhaps this is the season when American is ready to take his first big victory at a major.
“It’s a big year and this is the year for me where I can prove that last year was a fluke,” Harrison said. “For the most part in my first years on tour, when I was 18, 19 and 20, I did well, I was consistently going up from 200 to 150 until I cracked the Top 50 and obviously things turned around. I had a poor year last year. It’s up to me to go out there and prove through hard work and maturity that last year is not the standard that I will be known for.”
For more coverage of Americans at the 2014 Australian Open, please also read:
Teenager Keys ready to go
Become a US Open Insider: Sign up now to receive free e-mail newsletters with the latest info on the US Open, including ticket updates and special merchandise offers to the US Open Shop!