The Norman Transcript

December 7, 2013

Acing the game

By Kirsten Viohl
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The air is still, apart from the whooshing sound of the tennis ball as it flies across the court. It seems the two players speak their own language as they grunt back and forth, the competition rising.

Beads of sweat cling to Andrew Harris’ arms and legs, the sources of his power.

During this recent practice match, Harris has ditched his typically quiet demeanor for what lies beneath: a fiercely competitive collegiate tennis player with only one agenda.

The 19-year-old Australia native treats practice for the University of Oklahoma tennis team as he does every match and competition.

This relentless edge in Harris, who is still recovering from a serious back injury that put him out of tennis for 11 months, is what helped him claim his first professional win in October at the USA F27 Futures tournament in Mansfield, Texas.

“That actually has been the most memorable moment for me so far,” Harris said.

Winning a professional tournament trumps Harris’ victories at the Junior Wimbledon Championship and Junior French Open in 2012, two of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world.

The college freshman has come a long way from home for his tennis career, a 20-hour plane ride to be specific, but this is nothing out of the usual for Harris.

Raised by his professional tennis player mother, Anne Minter, who was once ranked No. 23 in the world, and his professional tennis coach father, Graeme Harris, he was thrown into the world of tennis at age 4.

Harris said he cannot recall his first few wins because he was so young.

Harris worked his way up by competing in tournaments all over Australia, spending his childhood years traveling and practicing.

At 13, he was selected for the National Academy in Melbourne, Australia, which is a high-performance tennis training program for young athletes.

When he reached high school, Harris made valiant attempts to be a normal teenager, going on outings to the beach with his friends and joining the football team at his high school.

Harris said he had a tight-knit group of friends who were supportive of his budding career but also were supportive of his quest to obtain some normalcy as a teenager.

Harris was traveling five to six months out of the year, causing his high school days to be short-lived. After 10th grade, he finished school through online courses using textbooks provided by the National Academy.

“It was pretty difficult,” Harris said. “You have to be pretty self-motivated.”

Harris said he practiced tennis in the morning, did school work for three hours, trained in the afternoon and then finished his studies at night.

“I would have liked to have had the normal high school experience because I had a great group of friends,” Harris said. “But with tennis, you just can’t do both.”

The rigorous days he spent working, away from his family for months at a time, eventually landed him a scholarship to play with OU’s tennis team. The freshman is majoring in business.

“I haven’t really thought that far ahead,” Harris said, followed by a shrug. “Of course, if I do have a career in tennis, I’d have to do something afterward, which is why grades are still really important.”

Harris said managing his classes and tennis have been harder than he expected. He missed several weeks of fall classes due to traveling for tournaments and is struggling to keep up.

Even when he is in Norman, Harris spends most of his days at the OU tennis facility, training and doing rehab for the bulging disk in his spine. His recovery has been a slow and steady progression.

“The doctors have said the bulging disk will be with me my whole career, which does scare me,” he said. “I did lose a lot of confidence being away from the court for so long.”

OU tennis coach John Roddick, brother of professional tennis player Andy Roddick, said Harris’ ability to take care of himself and work at his recovery is something he does not see often.

“You don’t see guys grasp the concepts that we’ve been working on here in a month,” Roddick said. “He has a world-class backhand, and not many guys can hit a one-hander the way Harris does.”

Roddick said Harris’ competitiveness is one of his biggest strengths.

“He is one of those that goes out there and expects to win every single time, whether it’s easy or difficult,” Roddick said. “That is something, from a coaching standpoint, that you appreciate because you can’t really teach that. The players either have it or they don’t.”

Harris keeps his competitive drive beneath the surface. His attitude comes across as casual and lackadaisical. He ends most statements about his career with shoulder shrugs and a laugh that seems to say “whatever happens, happens.”

Harris likes to surround himself with athletes like himself, ones who are humble and know that nothing comes without hard work.

“The tennis team is a great group of guys,” Harris said. “I enjoy being around them, since there are so many athletes that can get pretty annoying. Like eating dinner in the athletic dorms with the football players ... They can be so obnoxious.”

Harris said his parents have always stressed the realities of how hard it is to be a professional tennis player, keeping him grounded even in the midst of all his wins.

“From a young age, I’ve never really gotten a big head because I know there is just so much hard work ahead of me,” Harris said. “I don’t like cocky, arrogant people, so I don’t want to be like that myself.”

Scott Miller, an OU junior and one of Harris’ friends outside of his tennis circle, said Harris is unlike most athletes in the way he wears his success.

“You would never guess or think he was this phenomenal tennis player by just talking to him,” Miller said. “With a lot of athletes, it’s the first and only thing they talk about. With Andrew, he almost is awkward when people ask him about his wins and career.”

Every practice, every early morning and late night, the constant stress that Harris said can sometimes send him into a panic all have a purpose. He dreams of being ranked in the top 10 in the world at some point in his career.

Back at the court, the two players seem to be speaking their own language, volleying back and forth, the tennis ball taking a beating from both sides. Harris’ arms and legs may be the sources behind his power, but his head is the source behind his strength.

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