The white-hot spotlight that found Donald Young when he joined the pro tennis circuit at age 14—with the blessing of his parents, tennis pros Donald Sr. and Illona—nearly blinded him. Too many lopsided losses against grown men caused his world ranking to plummet and endorsements to disappear. Once heralded as “the next big thing” in tennis, Young, at 21 is now flying under the radar.
That may be a blessing in disguise. The Chicago-born lefty has won four titles on the Challengers circuit (tennis’ minor league) and has had encouraging results in major tournaments. On March 12, he earned the biggest victory in his career, defeating world No. 5 Andy Murray of Great Britain, 6-4, 6-3 in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. Murray, a two-time Grand Slam finalist, is not often pushed around. But Young dominated the Scotsman with a potent serve and groundstrokes.
Once ranked as high as No. 73 in the world, Young is currently No. 128. Is returning to the top 100 his goal for 2011? “I want to go past that,” he said. “I’ve been there. I know I can do that. The top 50 is my goal right now.”
Young, the world’s No. 1 junior player in 2005, used to get wild cards, or free passes, into the main draw of tournaments. Now he has to win matches in the qualifying rounds to get into the main draw. It’s a harder road. But whatever success he enjoys should bring him more satisfaction because he’s earning it.
Time is still on Young’s side. He could join the ranks of tennis’ Black male champions in the open era (since 1968). The legendary Arthur Ashe won three Grand Slam singles titles—1968 U.S. Open, 1970 Australian Open and 1975 Wimbledon. No Black man has won a Grand Slam singles crown since Hall of Famer Yannick Noah of France captured the 1983 French Open. The last Black men to compete in a Grand Slam final were France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the 2008 Australian Open and MaliVai Washington at Wimbledon in 1996.
Whether Young joins this list is up to him. The media hype is gone. Now, it’s all about how hard he’s willing to work to fulfill his potential.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
(Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)