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Healthy dose of confidence propels South African tennis star to new heights

Healthy dose of confidence propels South African tennis star to new heights
Lloyd Harris of South Africa returns against Reilly Opelka of the United States during his Men’s Singles round of 16 match on Day Eight of the 2021 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on 6 September 2021 in the Flushing neighbourhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo: Al Bello / Getty Images)

South Africa’s Lloyd Harris has reached a career-high 31 in the men’s singles rankings after making the quarterfinals at the US Open.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Lloyd Harris has enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2021, and along with a steady rise up the rankings comes a healthy dose of confidence.

Harris is now at 31 in the world. He first broke into the top 100 on 18 November 2019 and his rise during two Covid-impacted years has been steady. In many ways it has been remarkable because players’ rankings have been “protected” owing to the pandemic, meaning they aren’t losing points by missing tournaments.

In a gladiatorial sport such as tennis, a lack of confidence is as crippling as a weak backhand or serve. Not everyone can win, but everyone has to believe they can win – really believe it – otherwise there is no point being out there.

Harris has paid his dues for three years on tour, initially grinding out the odd victory to earn enough prize money to get to the next event and grind again.

Every tennis player on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour was a child phenom and a teenage sensation. As children, their talent streamed them into a smaller canal headed for the ATP tour and of the thousands of young Lloyd Harrises out there, only a handful make it as a professional. And a smaller group yet make it to the last eight of a Grand Slam tournament.

But that’s exactly what Cape Town’s Harris achieved at the US Open earlier this month, where he played some sensational tennis. His fourth-round victory over the giant Reilly Opelka was a wondrous display of serving speed and consistency, tethered to a truly jaw-dropping exhibition of ground-stroke hitting.

“With my game, with all these Covid restrictions and lockdowns, I actually got a lot of time to work a little bit more on my body – the physical aspect, the fitness aspect – and I think that has helped me a lot,” Harris said from New York, where he was preparing for SA’s Davis Cup clash against Venezuela.

“Physically, it allows you also to be mentally a lot stronger. That has helped me to continuously play at a higher level, not having to worry so much about the conditioning aspect.

“And also, when you look at a run to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, it’s a pretty physical task – especially also playing doubles…

“There was a lot of tennis being played, but I still felt in great shape and still ready to go for more. So, I think that has really propelled my tennis game to the next level.”

Earnings of more than R15-million in 2021 attest to that, as does a rising ranking, which was at 90 at the beginning of 2021.

Speaking his mind

In the US Open quarterfinals, against world number four Alexander Zverev, Harris had two points to take the first set when the German suddenly halted the match because of a distraction. That “distraction” took nearly two minutes to clear and achieved its intention. It broke Harris’s rhythm in a tense tie-breaker and he duly fluffed his lines as Zverev went on to win the set and the match.

Harris admitted that he should not have let the incident get to him. He confronted Zverev after the match and told him it was an unsportsmanlike thing to do.

But like everything in the dog-eat-dog world of pro tennis, Zverev was doing everything he could to win and achieved his aim by stretching the limit of the law. It’s just another piece of data that Harris picked up and will benefit from in time to come.

“I was really upset about that incident,” Harris said. “It was not a sportsmanlike move that I had to wait two minutes to serve on a set point. It’s almost unheard of. Unfortunately, he hit a really good return when I eventually did serve, and I lost that point. I then lost focus on the next two points.

“It’s mentally not easy when you’re serving for the set and suddenly three points slip out of your hands. I did have a ‘discussion’ with him (Zverev) at the time and we had a much longer discussion after the match. I was not happy.

“I had to tell him how I felt because we got on quite well off the court. He explained his situation and I told him I still wasn’t happy. It doesn’t matter what’s going on (in the stands), we’ve got to keep on playing. He apologised and we talked it out…”

Although Harris lost, his maturity to confront one of the best players in the world and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he was wrong, speaks volumes about his self-belief. He knows he belongs among the world’s elite and wasn’t going to be cowed into silence. 

Open court

Timing is everything in sport and the 24-year-old’s emergence at a time when the careers of the sport’s big three – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal – are coming to an end, means there will be more chances to win tournaments.

They’re not quite finished yet and Djokovic in particular will be around for a few years. But the fact that there are chinks in their hard-earned force fields gives hope to Harris and his contemporaries.

Earlier this year Harris beat 2020 US Open winner Dominic Thiem and last month he toppled Nadal in Washington. Russian Daniil Medvedev just beat Djokovic in straight sets to win the 2021 US Open and is now the world number two.

Harris doesn’t look at his future and see Grand Slam success blocked by the big three forever. He sees the Medvedevs, Zverevs and Thiems, and knows he can beat them. There is power in that.

Harris is not a top-tenner yet and there are many queuing up. But unlike the big three, the rest of tennis’s top players don’t have any intimidation factor over Harris.

“It has been coming for a while,” Harris said. “It has been hard for the younger generation to crack the Grand Slams. Novak has been unstoppable on tour and in his last match he came up against an extremely difficult opponent on the day in the form of Medvedev.

“I’ve known these guys for a long time, and we’ve been competitive in the juniors already, and it’s nice to see all of us progressing,” Harris said. “Now I think it’s time to kick out the big three and let the young generation take over.

“I grew up with these guys. It’s incredible how we are all within one year of each other.

“So, this young generation is really coming through, and if you look at the top 50 now, there are more young guys there than in the last 20 years.”

Harris remains loyal to playing for SA in the Davis Cup, but admitted that the scheduling becomes more difficult as he rises up the rankings and is in more demand.

He will turn out for the foreseeable future, starting with Venezuela on 18 and 19 September. And who knows, maybe with Harris in the vanguard, Team SA can also return to the top end of tennis at a team level. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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