NEW YORK -- Donald Young entered the US Open as perhaps the last American male player on anyone's mind, but he's writing the most compelling and inspirational storyline in the men's draw at the US Open.
Young is ranked a lowly No. 68, but into the fourth round at Flushing Meadows -- his deepest penetration at a Grand Slam event since the US Open of 2011. Before this tournament, Young had never recovered from losing the first two sets in a five-set match anywhere; he's done it three times this past week alone.
"Improvement. Resilience." Young spoke those words in his news conference after the most recent of those stirring comebacks, against Viktor Troicki on Saturday. "I've beat up myself. I've kind of been down. I've had good times, bad times. Just some resilience and fighting. Hopefully, it's not over and there's more to come."
Improvement. Resilience. Young is proving to be a real-life human oxymoron -- a late-blooming prodigy. Because this is a guy whom the game at various stages seemed to have left behind, but who keeps improving, maturing -- and finding success.
"I still have a while to go," Young said after his most recent win. "Look at the guys that are doing well. They're like 33. I'm 26. I feel kind of good, even though I've been playing quite a while."
It's tempting to say that Young's problem is that the chronology of his career was all wrong. But then every career is a unique one. Young's could have spawned a new cliché: too good, too soon. For after a start during which he won two Grand Slam events and rocketed to the No. 1 ranking by the age of 16 years, 5 months, Young ran out of competition. So he turned pro. He soon learned that with his slight build (he's now listed at an optimistic 6-foot, 175 pounds, but he was smaller then) and a game long on finesse and spin, he was in way over his head.
Over the ensuing years, Young has also struggled with concentration and his self-control on the court. A creative player, his low tolerance for frustration led him to experience lengthy slumps, but he developed greater emotional discipline -- as his two comeback wins in the Open show.
"I'm trying to work on being a little more even-keeled," he said, "But me not showing any emotion is not the best for me. I've tried that. So I try to let it out every once in a while, and not in too harsh or crazy ways. I've been working on the mental part as well. It's definitely improving."
Other factors came into play. Young is 26 now, but the parents who taught him the game (Don Sr. and Ilona Young are both teaching pros) have remained his coaches. The USTA, which helps American players with coaching and other forms of support, has worked with Donald. But the organization's coaches clashed with the Youngs over what steps Donald needed to do to improve in what ultimately became a public and much-publicized disagreement, and the parties went their separate ways. It seemed that Donald, loyal to his parents, was caught in the middle.
Given the hard feelings created by that dispute, the lack of bitterness Young feels in the wake of that episode is striking. When asked if the USTA is doing a good job identifying talent, he laughed and said: "I thought they moved on from me. I don't know. Honestly I think they're doing a good job. We have a great young crop of kids coming up."
Moreover, Young attributes his success to an improvement in just the area that outsiders, including the USTA coaches, had identified as his weakness: fitness and strength. "I've been going to the gym slaving away; I've been killing it," Young said on court after he beat Troicki. Later, he explained that while his newfound strength will not manifest in 135 mph serves or rocketing forehands, he can now hit a heavier ball for a longer period of time.
"I'm never going to be an [John] Isner, or a guy like that," he said, "The basis of my game, even in juniors, always has been outmaneuvering the other guy, putting him in awkward positions. Fitness is something that can give me an edge in that."
The other great edge Young can count on in this tournament is the crowd. The spectators were a powerful force on the Grandstand in Young's win Saturday, chanting his name, leaping to their feet and punching the air with each winner he hit in the waning stages of the match.
There were reasons beyond the obvious ones for that. Young is just 26, but it seems like he's been around as long as, oh, Moses, or even Tommy Haas. The Grandstand attracts aficionados; legions in that crowd of 6,000 knew his story, were conversant with how high -- and low -- he's been at different stages in his career.
He thanked the fans effusively on court and told the press, "Those fans honestly are the reason I was able to win. If that match would have probably been somewhere else, we probably wouldn't be sitting here talking."
A reporter asked him, "As a black man, how did it feel to be out there during the match, after the match, to hear the USA chant?"
Young replied, "First of all, as an American, it felt good, not just as a black guy. It's awesome to see the fans, multicultural, all different walks of life out there cheering for you. Again, to be a black guy is great. I appreciate everything and all the fans that come out to support me. But it definitely was a group effort out there today of everyone. I appreciate it and I hope they all come back the next rounds."
That probably is the last thing Young needs to worry about. Better he think about how to handle that vicious backhand of Stan Wawrinka, whom Young meets in the next round.