INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Ryan Harrison’s reward for playing one of his best matches of the year? A second-round clash with Rafael Nadal on Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open.
It’s just another in a long line of difficult draws for the 20-year-old American, who defeated Go Soeda 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 here on Thursday to snap a four-match losing streak. Harrison, ranked No. 73, often has faced the ATP elite early in the biggest tournaments; he lost to Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Juan Martin del Potro in the first or second round in four of the last five Grand Slams. (The only exception was the 2012 French Open, where he lost to No. 12 Gilles Simon in the first round.)
Playing that type of competition in the opening rounds has complicated Harrison’s quest to raise his ranking. But Harrison — whose first career meeting against Nadal will come in the Spaniard’s first hard-court tournament in almost a year — has taken some consolation from the bad luck and defeats.
“I have felt like I’m gaining experience with each match,” Harrison said. “Especially the match that Novak played against me in Australia [Harrison lost 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 in the second round]. I mean, that’s probably as well as I’ve ever seen anyone play against me, and it was pretty impressive. It was definitely an eye-opener to what I need to do.”
Before Thursday’s victory, Harrison had lost in the first round of three consecutive U.S. tournaments since falling to Djokovic in Melbourne. After suffering his worst loss of the season, to Spanish qualifier Daniel Munoz-De La Nava in Delray Beach, Fla., last week, Harrison immediately flew to Austin, Texas, to spend time with Andy Roddick and work through his struggles. The informal mentoring relationship has helped Harrison’s confidence.
“To say that he helped me in the last four, five days is an understatement,” Harrison said. “He was tremendous. Especially whenever you’re not feeling great after losing a few matches, it can be easy to get down on yourself. And he was really great about keeping my mind right, my confidence right, and getting ready for this big one [the BNP Paribas Open]. Obviously, Indian Wells is a very big tournament. It’s probably the biggest tournament outside of the Grand Slams. So he was very adamant about being ready, and letting it go, and learning, and moving forward. I’m really thankful that he was there to help.”
That work paid off both mentally and technically in Harrison’s win over the 71st-ranked Soeda. After taking the first set in a blink, Harrison played a bad game to get broken immediately in the second and Soeda was able to serve out the rest of the set. At 2-2 in the third set, Harrison was down break point and in danger of letting the match slip away. But he saved the break point and held, and broke Soda at love in the next game. Harrison held his serve (and nerve) for the rest of the match.
“I got into the early stages of that third set,” Harrison said, “and I just told myself, ‘Just go after your shots. you’ve been working your butt off trying to make sure that you’re ready for this and you’re ready to be in this position.’”
“Whenever you’ve lost a couple of matches and you get in closer situations, it’s easy to doubt yourself.” He added: “I think it was a really big match for me to win because I was able to feel those nerves and overcome them and win anyway. That’s exactly what you need whenever you’re trying to get things rolling.”
He will try to build on Thursday’s result in his match with Nadal. The conventional wisdom is that Nadal is ripe for an upset in his first tour-level hard-court match since the Sony Ericsson Open last March. But Harrison isn’t expecting to see a rusty or diminished Nadal, who went 12-1 in three clay-court tournaments in Latin America since returning from a seven-month absence because of a knee injury.
“He’s tentative enough with his body and careful enough, especially with the clay-court season coming up, [that] he wouldn’t be playing unless he was sure of himself,” Harrison said. “I really don’t think [Nadal's transition to the hard courts] is as big a factor as people are going to make it out to be, because Rafa is a great player.”