Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, LLOYD HARRIS talks about hitting the big time at Flushing Meadows, why he came close to quitting the sport he loves and how he expects the men’s singles draw to shape up.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your US Open experience?
Lloyd Harris: It was such an amazing experience. I had been playing well the whole summer, so I felt pretty confident going into the US Open qualifying draw. (Harris won a hat-trick of qualifiers to reach the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time). I took it one match at a time in the qualifiers, fought hard and competed for every point. I was serving pretty well, playing aggressively and coming forward. However, my competitiveness on court, and really battling for the wins, was the biggest key. My mental game has really come on in the last few months in particular. I feel like I have taken it up a notch and made a mental shift to stay more focused on court and not have many dips. The aim is to keep my levels up because that is what you need when you go up against the world’s top players... My match against Giles Simon in the first round was very tough. (Simon won 6-2, 6-2, 6-3). I felt the Frenchman played very well and didn’t miss too many balls. I watched him play on TV many times before and kind of knew what to expect. However, my game just wasn’t there on the day and he was too good. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it and fought hard. I was super pumped to have qualified for the US Open first time around. A great atmosphere, with so many people coming out to support, made it even more special. The fact that they fill up those massive stadiums is tremendous.
Sport24 asked: Did your career-high ranking catch you off guard?
Lloyd Harris: My career high ATP singles world ranking of 145 is something that happened very fast. To be honest, I didn’t see myself jumping up the rankings as quickly as I have managed to. The way it has happened is really remarkable and I’m so happy with how it has all turned out so far. It’s really been a big breakthrough in my career and now I’m just looking all the way to the top. My next aim is to build on my experience at the US Open and break into the ATP top 100. I heard that Wayne Ferreira said that I “have an impressive game that will get me deep into the world’s top 100.” I appreciate those comments from Wayne and I thought it was really cool that he came out to watch my first Grand Slam main draw match against Simon last Monday. I am really so confident in my game now. I’m excited for the next two months of the year and what lies ahead in the future. I feel like I can now compete against the top players in the world and I’m just ready to move up in the world of tennis. The key is to win a few more Challenger events and secure places in ATP World Group events on a regular basis. I also want to keep competing hard in the Grand Slam qualifying rounds, with the aim of reaching the main draws...There are a number of young players doing well. There were 12 Next Gen players competing in the US Open main draw, which was pretty crazy. Seeing the likes of Denis Shapovalov and Alexander Zverev going deeper in the Grand Slams is exciting. They are guys I grew up with on the junior circuit and I have known them for many years. It’s a source of inspiration for sure to see them doing well at big events and I feel I can do the same.
Sport24 asked: Did you almost quit the game due to a lack of sponsorship?
Lloyd Harris: Yes, it was very tough at one stage. Coming from South Africa, if you don’t have financial backing the sport is ridiculously expensive. I’m very grateful to the Anthony Harris Tennis Academy in Cape Town and the Match Foundation for affording me the opportunity to live out my dreams. (The Academy is a High Performance centre for junior and professional tennis players. It focuses on producing future tennis champions and runs a full day, intensive training programme six days a week). It’s inspiring to see what Anthony is doing with the young kids at his Academy. I take inspiration from the young players and am always learning from everyone and everything at the Academy. We have an amazing programme in place and it’s definitely where many champions will be made in the future. Ever since I joined the Academy in 2012, it has been a special journey. From day one, Anthony was the man who told me that he believed I could break into the top 100 and even higher. That helped me forge the right mindset and, along with Eitan Adams, we have done some amazing work in the last couple of years. I am very glad I kept on going and never gave up. I feel like I have had to take the long, hard route, without any wildcards, to get to where I am today. We built from the very bottom to get to where we are now, so I feel I deserve it. (To date Harris has won 14 singles titles on the Challenger Tour, having turned pro in 2015). I’m really looking forward to what we are still going to achieve. My motto is: “Keep dreaming, keep believing - no goal is unreachable.”
Sport24 asked: What does it mean to play Davis Cup for South Africa?
Lloyd Harris: Playing in the Davis Cup is definitely a source of pride for me. To represent your country is amazing. Being able to play at number one (in the singles) all the time has really been special for me. I feel like I have done really well in the Davis Cup since I debuted in 2016. It’s refreshing to have a team format. Playing on the singles circuit can be pretty lonely at times, with it being an individual sport. I really enjoy playing in front of our fans and competing for the whole of South Africa. I’m hoping that we can still do very well in years to come in the Davis Cup. (South Africa face a Europe/Africa Zone Group I play-off tie in October, but will have to wait to find out who their opponent will be. South Africa play against the loser of September’s tie between Ukraine and Portugal). The Davis Cup format is set to change and become an 18-nation World Cup-style event played over a week. I’m not sure everyone saw that coming, but it will be interesting to say the least.
Sport24 asked: Your take on Kevin Anderson’s meteoric rise in the ranks?
Lloyd Harris: Kevin has really gone up another level, especially in the last two years. He jumped into the top five in the world, which is no mean feat. (Anderson’s fourth-round exit at the US Open will see his ranking slide to ninth or lower). To have made it to two Grand Slam finals is a terrific achievement. It’s great for the country and hopefully I can stand up there next to him at some stage. Whenever Kevin and I are in the locker room, we will banter a bit. We’ll talk about braais or rugby, which is awesome! It’s always nice to hit (in practice) with all the top players and you can learn a lot from the way they do things. But then again, everyone is different in terms of the way they approach the game. We all have our own things that we need to focus on when we are in tournament-mode. I saw Kevin wrote “great job man!” after I qualified for the US Open first round, which was cool. For South Africa to have two players at the very top would be something special. I believe we can really inspire the up-and-coming players to follow us and also achieve great things. There have definitely been some positive changes within South African tennis and hopefully we can turn that into results.
Sport24 asked: Who is your tip for the men’s winner at Flushing Meadows?
Lloyd Harris: Defending champion Rafael Nadal will be the man to beat. Rafa has been on fire for the last couple of months and is playing great tennis. I have always admired his competitiveness and the way he fights for every point. He competes as if it’s the last point he will ever play. He has come through a few difficult sets and matches during the US Open, but whenever he goes deep into a tournament, he gets better. He thrives in big match situations. However, for me, the form player in the tournament is Juan Martin del Potro. He has been playing absolutely tremendous tennis and the fact that he has only dropped one set all tournament is very impressive. The pair’s semi-final showdown will be one to watch, with the men’s singles winner likely to come from that contest. However, Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori are also still in the mix and face off in the other semi-final. With four top players having qualified for the semi-finals, it’s likely to be an exciting conclusion.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests, who would they be and why?
Lloyd Harris: I would invite Roger Federer because he was my idol growing up. I have watched him over so many years and have learned so much by following his career. He plays the most beautiful tennis, but is also the best sportsman. My next guest would be the late Nelson Mandela owing to the great inspiration he was to the world. He accomplished so much after going through such a tough stage in his life. I’m inspired by the amazing changes he made to South Africa. Meanwhile, I’m single at the moment and actress Mila Kunis would be my celebrity crush I would invite. I like the films she has done over her career and she is kind of cute, so that adds to it for sure. In terms of food on offer for the evening, I’m a very big fan of Italian cuisine and would serve pasta and pizza dishes.
Grant Shub and Lloyd Harris
Schakk Burger snr
Chad le Clos
Carlo de Fava
Flip van der Merwe
Neil de Kock
Rohan Janse van Rensburg