Few players had a better end to their 2011 ATP season than 22-year-old American Donald Young. After years spent floundering under the pressure of sky-high expectations, Young finally broke through during last summer's US Open Series, when he reached the semifinals in Washington and the fourth round of the US Open. He followed up his stellar summer with a finals appearance on the indoor courts of Bangkok, which lifted him to a career-high ranking of 38. At last, after having been dismissed by so many in the tennis world, it seemed Young was destined to cash in on his much-hyped potential, establishing himself as a solid tour player with a chance to crack the top 20, and perhaps reach even greater heights.
Young's dream conclusion to the 2011 season has inexplicably given way to a nightmarish 2012. Over halfway through the year, Young has compiled a paltry 2-14 record, suffering his 14th and worst defeat today in Eastbourne, as he bowed out to world #200 Jamie Baker after winning just five games. Even his two wins this year were very close calls, the first coming at the Australian Open in 5 sets against 248th-ranked qualifier Peter Gojowczyk, and the other a 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 victory against Grigor Dimitrov, who later avenged his defeat convincingly in a 7-6, 6-1, 6-1 shellacking of Young at Roland Garros.
It's hard to say what exactly has caused such an abrupt decline in Young's game. Throughout his career, many tennis fans and commentators have blamed his continued underperformance on his reluctance to end his professional relationship with his parents, who have coached him since childhood. This criticism is unfair, though, as few if any of these people can truly attest to the quality of coachng Young receives. Although parent-coach relationship have doomed many talented players, Young's issues seem to run deeper. His French Open match against Dimitrov was an embarrassing display of the easy errors, lackadaisical play, and mental weakness that have held him back for years.
Young has failed to win a match in four months, going 0-11 in tournament play since last winning in late February. His implosion has gone largely unnoticed by most, though, since he attained his year-end ranking of 39 almost entirely through his successes in the second half of last year. Young's ranking currently stands at 50, which is still high enough for him to enter virtually any tournament on the ATP World Tour, all the way through to the US Open at the end of August. Trouble is, if Young closes out the season as abysmally as he's played so far, he'll stand to lose nearly all of the 700 ranking points he racked up from July to November, which would drop him well below the top 100.
A departure from the top 100 would be simply devastating for Young. It would spell the end to his time in the posh, lucrative events of the ATP World Tour, and he'd be forced to rebuild his ranking in the small-town tennis centers and public parks that play host to low-paying, ill-attended Challenger tournaments. Young enjoyed a six-month stint in the top 100 back in 2008 before falling way off, so he's clawed back once before. But to do it a second time would prove a much greater feat.
For one, Young would be forced to carry on without the help of the USTA. While the organization had been generous to their hottest prospect for many years, Young has had no qualms about airing his grievances throughout his career. His long-simmering feud with the USTA finally boiled over last April, when Young blasted the organization on Twitter after being denied a French Open wild card. Even if relations have improved, Young would simply not be a priority at a time when younger, brighter prospects have entered into the fold. For years, Young has been given chance after chance to prove himself as an elite player, and has continually fallen well short. Promising young talents like Denis Kudla, Rhyne Williams, Daniel Kosakowski, and Jack Sock would all take precedence over Young, and deservedly so.
Worse yet is the effect that Young's colossal collapse would have on his resolve and confidence. He's already fallen hard just a few months after he seemed to have finally "made it" in tennis, and a bad summer would likely seal his fate as yet another promising young American who fell short a professional level. Then again, Young is only 22 and has his prime years ahead of him, but this is already his seventh year as a full-time pro, and he's carried the heavy burden of great expectations the entire way. Last summer offered him hope and redemption, but as Donald Young looks to save his flagging career, a much tougher summer lies in wait.