Several years ago, Novak Djokovic emerged on the men’s tour as a precocious teen, speaking openly of his lofty ambitions for tennis domination and his desire to take on the game’s best. Fresh-faced, ebullient and incredibly talented, the young Serb represented the future of his fledgling nation’s tennis prospects, a badge of honour he wore all the way on his rise to becoming a multiple Grand Slam champion and world No.1.
More recently, along has come Ryan Harrison. Similarly articulate and driven, he cracked the top 100 at just 19 years of age, and anointed by many as the future of American tennis, he has taken to representing his country in Davis Cup like a fish to water. His intensity and ambition, much like Djokovic's, is hard to surpass.
On Wednesday night at Rod Laver Arena, the pair came face to face. And following Djokovic’s commanding 6-1 6-2 6-3 win in 91 minutes, it showed that Harrison, currently ranked No.62, has a long way to go before reaching Djokovic’s lofty level.
“I went with that kind of (focused) mindset on the court, just trying to play as sharp as possible from the start,” Djokovic said after the match.
“You're trying to perform your best in every match that you play on. This was definitely a better performance than the first round. I managed to play in a very high level already in the second round of a Grand Slam, which is very encouraging for (the) next challenge.”
With Djokovic clad in dark hues, Harrison in head-to-toe white and the pair moving about the square lines of the tennis court, the match somewhat resembled pieces on a chessboard. And much like a clever exponent of the strategic game, Djokovic immediately set about dissecting his young foe.
If he wasn’t sliding out wide to rifle his trademark open stance backhand, he was on his toes, hugging the baseline and controlling the centre of the court. When he wasn’t smacking aces or landing his returns mere centimetres from the baseline, he was displaying his deft touch in the form of dropshots and perfectly-weighted lobs.
The Serb applied maximum pressure from the very first ball, and Harrison simply couldn’t go with him. The shell-shocked 20-year-old found himself a set down in just 20 minutes, having won nine points to Djokovic’s 26.
The top seed has rarely looked better and continued his assault, his forehand – which produced 14 cold winners throughout the match – particularly devastating. Harrison finally got the better of Djokovic during the third game, coming out on top of a 17-stroke rally at deuce after the Serb erred wildly, eventually holding for 1-2.
But it was a mere aberration. Djokovic’s sunniness, exhibitionism and character masks the intense competitor within, killer instinct running like iced water through his veins. He showed no remorse for or mercy on his overwhelmed opponent despite the one-sided scoreline, and made it even more so when he held to love to take second set, helped on set point by a fabulous running forehand angled sharply crosscourt that drew an error.
Encouragingly, the third set was more competitive.
Harrison showed evidence of his highly-regarded talent with some electrifying passing shot winners, his clenched fists showing the supportive Rod Laver Arena crowd that the endeavour, at least, was there. They cheered him on, willing the match to go just a little longer.
They got their wish. A battle ensued in the seventh game, with several deuces. As Djokovic relentlessly pounded his forehand from corner to corner, Harrison defended valiantly and was able to extract some uncharacteristic errors. Holding for 3-4, he injected a little tension into the match.
Djokovic answered the challenge authoritatively, clobbering several winners to hold for love, and then clocking consecutive forehand winners in the next game to end the match.
During his on-court post-match interview, the top seed surmised that Harrison may not have played his best given the occasion, but wished him the best and noted that a bright future lay ahead.
“I'm sure, knowing him for last two years, that he's going to put on these hours on the court and off the court being very professional, committed,” he continued in his post-match press conference.
“So that's why I think they rate him as one of the up-and-coming rising stars.”
Yet after tonight’s exemplary performance from Djokovic, it appears that bright future is a little way off.
Because the world No.1 isn’t going anywhere.