Donald Young slugged his way into the second round of the U.S. Open, the tennis Grand Slam finale of the year, and took home a nifty paycheck of slightly more than $77,000.
Not bad for what was probably no more than five hours of work at the recently completed event in New York City.
Put in perspective, young’s earnings amounts to more than three years income for a family of four living at the poverty level. For the brother or sister working a 40-hour workweek, it amounts to $1,925 an hour.
But for Young — he reportedly likes to be called DY — and his supporters the second-round loss amounts to yet another disappointing early exit for a one-time tennis prodigy who had dreams of winning multiple Grand Slams.
Forget the paycheck!
Today, it seems unlikely that Young, 27, will fulfill the promise he showed when I first read about him more than a decade ago. In 2005, he won the boys Australian Open, the U.S. Open doubles crown and finished the year as the youngest player ever to be ranked No.1 in the world at age 15.
I probably was not alone in my excitement over the prospect of finally seeing the first black male win a major tennis tournament since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975. (Ashe also won the US Open in 1968 and the Australian Open in 1970).
Just two years later, however, Young was the focus of a New York Times Magazine article bearing the headline, “Prodigy’s End.”
That seems a startling epitaph, given that at the time Young was in only his third year as a pro, was still playing juniors — he won the Wimbledon boys title a month after the article was published — and was only 17 years old.
Today, the headline seems prescient.
Closing out his 12th year on the pro tour, Young has yet to win an ATP World Tour title. (He has eight lower-tier singles titles.) He was knocked out in the first round of the Japan Open, his most recent event, and is now ranked No. 81. His highest rank was 38 in 2012. His career match record is 96-151. In 2016, he is 17-19.
The one-time future of American men’s tennis is now being overshadowed by the emergence of a new crop of promising young players, led by 18-year-olds Taylor Fritz and Francis Tiafoe.
There has been all sorts of speculation about why DY has not attained the same level of success as a pro that he reached as a junior. He’s too slight of build by today’s standards. He lacks a big weapon needed to defeat bigger opponents. He has stayed too long under the tutelage of his parents.
I asked a few tennis pros their thoughts on why Young has not lived up to his potential.
Clint Gerdine, a federal intellectual property lawyer who moonlights as a USTA tournament official, said success at the junior level does not necessarily portend success as a pro.
“It’s all about having a big weapon and mental toughness to be successful at the pro level,” he said via email. “Basically, you have to have something that everyone respects-fears to be successful.”
Bob Davis, founder of the Black Tennis History Museum, who has trained scores of young players over the years, said the current ATP tour is dominated by bigger, stronger players. He noted the average male player is 6’3″ in height.
“Today’s tennis is first-strike tennis,” Davis said. “Serve, hit a forehand through a sideline, point over.”
Young’s ATP player profile lists him as 6’0″ and 175 pounds. While that is not puny, compare it to the size of some of the top players and rising stars. Isner, Ivo Karlovic and 19-year-old American Reilly Opelka are all nearly seven feet tall.
Marin Cilic, a 2014 U.S Open champion, Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open winner, and perennial Top 10 player Tomas Berdych are all 6’6,” as is young German sensation Alexander Zverev. Australian young gun Nick Kyrgios stands 6’4″, as does Taylor Fritz.
Davis said Young “has a beautiful game, but he — and it — isn’t big enough to be Top 10. Kei Nishikori is the notable exception, because of the quality of his return and unusual mobility.”
It was Nishikori, the current No. 5 player who stands 5’10” and weighs 165, who defeated Young in the first round of the Japan Open, although Young won the opening set.
There is no question Young is a gifted player. Even John McEnroe, who had arguably the best hands in the game, has spoken admiringly of Young’s dexterity. But obviously talent alone is not enough to rise to the top of professional men’s tennis.
Michael Gee, a tennis pro at the Aspen Hill Club in Silver Spring, Md., and a former MEAC tennis player of the year at Howard University, said Young displayed awesome skills as a teenager but has failed to adapt his game to the bigger arena.
“When he was a junior, he was so talented, his skill level so good, he could get away with some things you can’t get away with now,” Gee said. “He doesn’t have the size to fight the big boys at the pro level.
“So if you’re a small dude, how do you combat that? Look at David Ferrer. How does he overcome that? Fitness. (Young) doesn’t move as well as Ferrer, so he needs to hit a bigger ball.”
Gee was referring to the Spanish player known for his tenacity. Ferrer is just 5’9″ and weighs 160. While he has never won a major tournament, he has snared 26 titles since turning pro in 2000 and earned $29.3 million.
Gee acknowledges Young looks as though he has spent more time in the gym of late but questioned DY’s commitment to training early in his career. Gee added Young also may have done well to at least try out a different coach or two.
Despite his disadvantages, I continue to believe Young can have a breakout year. I think he has a title or two in him, maybe not a Grand Slam, but an ATP championship.
After all, how can I give up on someone who has persevered through 10 straight losses at the start of his pro career and 17 consecutive defeats at the start of 2012.
DY has had some encouraging moments, beating Andy Murray, currently No. 2, and Stan Warwrinka, currently No. 4. He advanced to the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 2011 and 2015 and was a mixed doubles semi-finalist in 2014. He has been in two tour finals.
But if Young never wins an ATP tournament, let alone a Grand Slam championship, he will have reached a level scores of players fail to crack. He has become entrenched inside the Top 100, and a quote by him in the 2007 New York Times article suggests that may be good enough.
“If I’m Top 100 for five to six years, I feel that’s pretty good, because not too many people get to do that,” Young told the interviewer. “That’s not my ultimate goal, I still want better, but if that’s what happens, that’s what happens.”