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TENNIS

Harrison on cusp of breaking through

After their valiant, if vain, efforts on behalf of the U.S. team in Belgrade last week, John Isner and Sam Querrey should form the basis of Patrick McEnroe's Davis Cup squad in the years to come.

But, they need backup and Thursday night, in front of a small but appreciative crowd huddling against the chill at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, a young man emerged to stake his claim for that role.

Ryan Harrison beat Taylor Dent 6-3, 6-4, with the aplomb of a veteran, which is not bad considering Harrison is just 17. He is, in fact, the first 17-year-old to win a round in what is now titled the BNP Paribas Open since a certain Rafael Nadal. And if that is not good enough company to keep, the only other 17-year-olds to win a match at this event were Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang.

It is, of course, much too early to assess whether Harrison can develop into a player of similar caliber but the signs are promising. Underpinned by a massive serve, he has a game that is already able to withstand the kind of punishing opposition provided by the modern day pro. He fought his way through the qualifying at Delray Beach two weeks ago before losing in a tight match against the eventual champion Ernests Gulbis and has now won a match in this ATP Masters 1000 event -- the highest level of the men's game after the Grand Slams. The win will lift his ranking from its current position of 284 by a considerable margin.

It was not one of Dent's best performances as a first-serve success rate of 39 percent in the first set reveals but Harrison did not falter when he had his chances to close out both sets -- a sign that he is already learning to handle those situations.

"I served for a set against Gulbis and didn't get enough first serves in," he recalled. "So I was determined not to let that happen again."

Harrison, who was born in Shreveport, La., and began his tennis education at John Newcombe's Tennis Ranch at New Braunfels, Texas, is a fluent speaker with a ready smile and an obvious grasp of what is required to make a success of himself in this demanding sport.

He feels he needs to play matches now, "because I have always been serious about practice and now I just need the experience of being out there," he said. He is also learning to handle himself in the locker room. "I know I'm the rookie in there. I just put my head down and work hard to earn respect. I know it doesn't come by talking."

But he also knows you need a sense of humor. He lost a bet to Andy Roddick last year and the penalty was to have to go and get Andy a coffee from the players' lounge wearing just a towel. "It was a big towel," he said, smiling. "A very big towel."

Harrison acknowledges that Roddick has been great with him, as has Dent, with whom he played doubles against the Bryan brothers at Delray Beach. "Taylor was really helpful all week," he said. "It was just a shame we had to play each other here."

Harrison enjoys playing what he describes as an "all 'round game" and showed a willingness to get in to the net whenever possible Thursday. That, of course, is Dent's forte but he was never consistent enough with his approach shots to put pressure on his impressive young opponent.

Next up for the teenager: Croatian veteran Ivan Ljubicic who will offer another good test for a young man who seems on the verge of making America's tennis future look as bright as the desert sunshine.