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Small wonder

Though 5-3, 100 pounds, Harrison has a big game

Christian Harrison, 14, under the watchful eye of tennis legend Nick Bollettieri, has already leaped to the pro ranks. Christian Harrison, 14, under the watchful eye of tennis legend Nick Bollettieri, has already leaped to the pro ranks. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / May 30, 2009
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BRADENTON, Fla. - The search for the next great American champion starts at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy at 7:30 a.m. sharp.

"We are looking for the next No. 1 in the world," says Yutaka Nakamura, Director of Performance-Tennis at the academy. "The world-class athlete."

Nakamura gestures to a skinny, freckle-faced kid who has just cruised past the huffing-and-puffing national youth team of India.

"In two, three years, he's going to start hitting 120-130-mile-per-hour serves," Nakamura says. "He's going to take over [Andy] Roddick's and James Blake's position, hopefully within five years."

But at 5 feet 3 inches, 100 pounds, Christian Harrison looks more like one of the ball boys who crouch by the net and dart after errant shots.

Harrison, 14, is the athlete of the future. He turned pro last year and already has a lucrative endorsement contract. Tennis Hall of Famer Guillermo Vilas saw him play as a 10-year-old and gushed that he was the best 10-year-old he had ever seen.

Harrison won the 2008 World Junior Tennis Finals (boys and girls 14 and under) in the Czech Republic, helping Team USA win a championship, and he entered this year ranked No. 213 in the International Tennis Federation for males 18 and younger.

At last year's US Open, the legendary John McEnroe was looking for a game before doing his television commentary.

Harrison volunteered.

"[McEnroe] walked up to me and said, 'Are you serious? You've got to be kidding me, he's so small,' " recalls Ben Crandall, Harrison's agent. "Then Christian ran him all over the court."

For the record, McEnroe prevailed, 6-4. On air, Johnny Mac talked about how Harrison could read where he was serving. And he repeatedly asked for him as a practice partner.

The youngster's bloodlines are good. His brother, Ryan, 17, has been ranked as one of the top 10 junior players in the world. Their father, Pat, is a tennis pro and also their manager. He hopes the Harrison brothers will someday be as well known as the Williams sisters.

Both boys were playing in tournaments by age 5. At 7, both were beating older players.

"He's proven himself to be the best 14-year-old in the world," says Ryan, who after a growth spurt now stands 6-1. "You just wait till he grows."

On this early morning, Christian is working on flexibility and athleticism. After his workout, he'll play tennis for four hours.

The legendary Bollettieri, 77, founder of this 300-acre complex, will also work one-on-one with him on his forehand. Bollettieri, whose bronze statue adorns the entrance gate, knows a little about champions. He has coached 10 No. 1 players, including Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, and Venus and Serena Williams.

He likes Christian Harrison, but with one caveat.

"Size is going to be a big factor in his future," Bollettieri says. "He's very positive, very sure of himself for a young boy. Extremely. He will be able to play all aspects of the game. The question mark is his size. If he gets anywhere from 5-11 and up, he could be a hell of a player."

Bollettieri says the kid never gets intimidated. "He wants to win and he's willing to pay the price," says Bollettieri. "He smells the court. He knows where the ball is going to go. He's humble, but at the same time cocky."

Sibling rivalry
The family moved twice from their home in Shreveport, La., because of tennis. Pat became a pro at the John Newcombe Tennis Academy in Texas, and both boys worked with their father before landing here at the massive IMG Academies complex, where more than 13,000 athletes from 75 countries train in a half-dozen sports.

The Harrison brothers make more than $100,000 a year each in endorsements from a shoe company and a racket company. Christian says he gets no allowance; his father insists that is for a reason.

"When he wants money, I let him work for it stringing rackets instead of just giving him money," he says.

At 15, Ryan became the third-youngest player since 1990 to win an ATP main draw match. He beat Pablo Cuevas at the 2008 US Clay Court Championships in Houston, joining Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet in that elite category. Roddick has mentored him, and he has hit with Roger Federer and Nadal.

Then he suffered a stress fracture in his back last fall, and his rehab sessions were delayed when he dislocated a knuckle on his right hand from punching another teenage tennis player last winter. "It was a very dumb thing to do," he says.

"It's a normal teenage thing, but when your right hand is your living, you can't do things like that," says Pat.

Ryan made a comeback this month when he reached his first quarterfinals in a USTA Challenger tournament at the Sarasota Open, shocking Taylor Dent, formerly ranked No. 21 in the world, en route.

Unfortunately, Christian also has inherited the temper gene. He smashed his first racket when he was 4, hitting it against a wall.

Christian is ruthless on the court, especially with a wounded opponent. Just ask his brother.

"When I was 14, I had a knee problem," says Ryan. "He was 12 and I never lost a match to him in my life. I came out and I was playing my first match since I had tendinitis and I lost the first set, 6-0," says Ryan. "He was merciless. I can still see the grin on his face."

Christian laughs at the story.

"I tell him I'll be 1 and you'll be 2," Ryan says. "Yes sir, it's real serious."

Learning by doing
Christian knows his life isn't normal. How many 14-year-olds are on a first-name basis with Maria Sharapova, are home-schooled, and play 20 tournaments a year in Europe, the United States, and South America?

"It's certainly abnormal, but boy, you learn a lot about life," says Pat. "You get to experience things that 99.9 percent of kids your age don't get to experience. Other kids have to read about other places in a book. You get to go live those experiences."

But as a pro at 13, has he been robbed of his childhood? "No, not at all," Christian says. "I have a ton of friends I know from tournaments. I don't think I'm missing out. We play Xbox, Nintendo, Wii, PlayStation. Madden Football is my favorite. Plus, I play golf a lot."

Pat Harrison has heard the criticism from other parents that he force-fed his sons tennis.

"I've heard it behind my back and to my face," he says. "You've got to understand that 70-80 percent of that is pure jealousy. They wish they were in that role.

"I look at this just like school. If their parents want them to make straight A's and push them to study, why should sports be different? Why shouldn't you push them to play a sport they love?"

On this day, in a lengthy match against an Indian national champion, Christian gives up three years and at least a foot before losing the tiebreaking set, 7-6.

The last point saw him dive left to spear a shot, run cross-court and dive right to return a shot. The racket popped out of his hand and he tried to stop the game-winner with his open hand. Defeated, he shook his opponent's hand and walked off the court.

All told, Christian hit about 5,000 tennis balls in one day.

"I was happy with about 60 percent of them," he says.

Christian says it's because he loves tennis and is always ready for more tennis.

Well, almost always.

"Maybe if I was really tired, like the first morning back from Europe, maybe not," he says. "But then I love it all the other times."

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.