Young maturing on, and off, the court

NEW YORK -- The restaurant at the La Quinta hotel in New Haven, Conn., had long since closed, but Donald Young could not take his eyes off the screen.

Transfixed, he watched an emerging tennis player, oozing with confidence, take Nikolay Davydenko, the world's No. 4-ranked player, to the brink. The underdog actually was two points from winning the match before fading and losing.

Young, as it turned out, was watching himself -- in an Aug. 22 match taped earlier from the Pilot Pen tournament on ESPN2.

"To him, it was a different person," his mother, Illona, said on Thursday, sitting in the players' lounge. "He's never seen himself playing at that level, and it gave him goose bumps.

"Yes, he was very, very impressed with himself."

He is not alone.

After struggling with the oppressive weight -- and more significantly, the wait -- of expectation, Donald Young has begun the ascent so many predicted for him. After three meandering, mediocre years in the professional ranks, the last two months have been very, very encouraging:

" In early July, two weeks before his 18th birthday, Young won the Wimbledon junior tournament.

" A few weeks later he won his first Challenger event, in Aptos, Calif.

" Less than two weeks ago, after losing his first 11 matches at the ATP level, he broke through with a victory over Amer Delic in New Haven.

" After winning his first Grand Slam match earlier, Young advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open with a Thursday walkover when Richard Gasquet pulled out complaining of the effects of tonsillitis.

"With my illness, I'm sure I can't win this match," Gasquet said. "I get fever yesterday night. I had a big problem."

Said Young, "Prefer to win it, but I'll take this."

On Monday, after his first-round win, Gasquet praised Young, saying his progress was "incredible," adding he thought Young will be in the top 10 in the next three or four years.

While Young's success is due to a confluence of events, the primary reason is the combustible combination of inches and pounds. The ATP Web site lists Young at 5-foot-9, 145 pounds. In fact, according to his mother, he now stands 5-11 and weighs 160 pounds.

"He always had the skills," said Illona, who has served as his coach from the beginning. "But tennis is a very physical sport. Until 2007, he didn't have the strength and the stamina to withstand the big hitters. Going from 17 to 18, he's undergone some big physical changes. His ability to recover has improved, and he's hitting the ball a lot harder."

Two years ago, Young was guiding in his first serve at speeds around 100 mph. Now, he's consistently hitting the high teens and low 120s, and has gone as high as 131. In New Haven, Davydenko said -- considering both the forehand and backhand -- that Young was the most dangerous American.

"This guy makes good winners from both sides," Davydenko said.

When the names of Andy Roddick and James Blake were invoked, Davydenko shook his head and refused to retract his statement.

And so, Young grew into his body. And then his mind followed.

"That's exactly it," Illona said. "He just wasn't ready. He didn't believe it. Until he was ready, nothing was going to happen."

In the back of his mind, she said, Young never fully believed he belonged with the best players in the game. That changed when he was invited to be a practice partner by U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe in preparation for the April quarterfinal against Spain. The move made sense, since three of Spain's best players -- Rafael Nadal, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez -- are, like Young, left-handed.

In retrospect, it made even more sense from Young's point of view. Young hit with Roddick and Blake and discovered he could hang with those big hitters. After the United States team advanced to the semifinals, Roddick invited Young to his ranch in Austin, Texas, and Young's feelings were confirmed over five intense days, practicing against one of the hardest hitters on tour. At Wimbledon, Young hit twice with seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe.

"He felt he belonged," said Paul Roetert, the USTA's managing director of player development. "His confidence grew."

In today's professional game, nothing attracts attention like talent. At the age of 14, Young was uncommonly precocious. He already had serious game -- he won the Orange Bowl 16s in 2003 -- and the suitors of the professional game lined up to court him. In October 2003, the International Management Group signed him to a professional contract. In 2005, he won the Australian Open junior tournament and became the youngest junior boy ever to be ranked No. 1 at season's end, as well as the first African-American male to finish No. 1.

And then? Nothing much at the professional level. He accepted wild cards into ATP events from starstruck tournament directors (who were perhaps swayed by the growing influence of IMG), but by the end of 2006, his ranking was hovering in the mid-500s and he had lost all 10 of his ATP matches.

In November, Young earned his online high school diploma from Continental University and, along with his parents, made a "100 percent" commitment to professional tennis, according to his mother.

Three months later, after a dialogue that stretched back over four years, the USTA formed a partnership with the Young family. The organization would lend him support -- with two conditions: (1) control of Young's schedule, and (2) the addition of a full-time USTA coach.

Francisco Montana was the initial choice, but his successor, David Nainkin, turned out to be a better fit. He has helped Young with fitness and strategy, but the change in scheduling philosophy has been an important factor, too.

"We felt he was accepting too many [ATP] wild cards," Roetert said. "We wanted him playing tournaments where he could focus on winning. We wanted him to earn his way up the ladder."

So Young played $10,000 Futures events and gradually enjoyed increasing success. As a reward, the USTA occasionally would give him a wild card into a $50,000 Challenger event. After he broke through with his Challenger win in California, Young was granted a wild card entry into Indianapolis. He lost, but in his second ATP match of the year, in New Haven, he won.

Today he finds himself on the threshold of a fourth-round match with Roger Federer. On Saturday, Young will play Feliciano Lopez, who defeated Igor Andreev in a rousing fifth-set tiebreaker. Based on Young's recent play, it is a winnable match.

If it happens, Young will be confronted with this delicious dilemma:

As part of his "earning" curve, he is signed up for his last junior event, the 2007 U.S. Open. If he manages to beat Lopez, he could have two matches scheduled on Labor Day; one potentially against the world No. 1, the other against an obscure junior player.

"If it comes to that," Roetert said, smiling, "it might be in his best interest to withdraw from juniors."

Young's ranking is currently No. 223, but even if he loses to Lopez it will rise to around No. 164. If he wins, he's looking at a ranking close to 130 -- something that seemed unimaginable a few weeks ago.

"You become an icon, and the expectations kick in," Illona said. "And then there was a drought. America's been so hungry for a champion, and they thought they had found someone. People were disappointed and some of [the criticism] was harsh. I'd say from 15 on, it was the most difficult time ever.

"But, really, the answer is quite simple. He's growing up."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.