Christian Harrison’s three-set win over 18-year-old upstart Zane Khan in the second round of qualifying at the Delray Beach Open was like a microcosm of his tennis career.
First, there was smooth sailing in the form of a 6-1, 5-2 start. But then came adversity — his opponent stormed back into the match, sending the second set into a tie-break. Harrison made a comeback, just like he always does, saving two set points, before ultimately falling 11-9.
Harrison, 26, then broke serve at 5-5 in the third set. His opponent appeared to be cramping and took a medical timeout before the Louisiana native served for the match at 6-5. But he was broken and was then down a mini-break in the decisive tie-break before he staged yet another big comeback to win it 7/4, capping a thoroughly entertaining two hour, 49 minute win.
Nothing has ever come easy for Harrison — who has endured a bone infection and eight surgeries, including operations on both legs, both hips, his right wrist, and both adductors, but has refused to give up on his tennis dream. The hardships, he says, have made the wins even sweeter.
When asked how many comebacks he’s currently on after his win Wednesday, Harrison, now ranked No. 949, admits he’s lost count. The man has made more comebacks than Rocky Balboa, Apollo Creed, Tom Brady, and Freddy Krueger combined.
“I would say it’s at least six comebacks, I think, where I’ve missed more than six months at a time,” says Harrison, who trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. “I’ve never really put it all on paper… I just think it was determination that kept me going.”
Harrison’s win vaults him into the main draw of a tour-level event for the first time since 2018, when he won his opening-round match at the Hall of Fame Open in Newport. Even more important, it provides fuel to his latest comeback, which began last September after a year-and-a half-absence from the tour after he had surgery on his left femur.
Harrison said after the match that despite all of the adversity he’s faced, he never once considered giving up the sport. Last year, he thought that perhaps he might have to focus on playing doubles, with his partner and brother, Ryan. But the more he rehabbed, the more he realised that he still had the game, and the legs, to cover the whole court. During all of the dark times, tennis served as a tonic — being on the court literally made him feel better, it picked him up at times when he wondered if he’d ever be healthy and gave him perspective on what really matters in life.
“In a doctor’s office, you get terrible news and the things you took for granted (assuming you can play tennis forever) are no longer a given,” he says. “Life is tough. You take the simple things for granted.”
He travels, practises and plays with his older brother Ryan, who helped him through the tough times. Like all brothers, they fight occasionally and sometimes need their space. But at tournaments like this one, they try to get hotel rooms next to each other and like to order Uber Eats together.
Harrison will be at Ryan’s next match, and his brother will be at his. They’ve never faced each other on the tour, and won’t meet in the first round but could face each other down the line. “We know the highs and lows, that’s the one thing we can both relate to even if we fight,” Christian says.
Ryan cracked the Top 50 in 2012 and many felt that Christian’s ceiling was even higher before his career was derailed by injuries. Now that Christian’s healthy and still in his prime, he’s poised to finally make a splash in a sport he’s never appreciated more. But he’s not focused on his FedEx ATP Ranking, he says. Having gone through years of medical hell, he’s just happy to be back on court, playing at a high level and having fun after all the tough times.
“I had high expectations during my teenage years, but then things are taken away from you and you want to go back and prove yourself, make a career doing what you love,” he says. “That’s what I want right now. To do well enough to keep playing and have a healthy career and make a living doing what I love.”
Through all the good times and bad, his father and coach, Pat, was his rock on the court, and his mom, Susie, was the one who never missed one of his doctor’s appointments. “Sometimes I took out my emotions too much on them,” he recalls. “Now I get to enjoy success and credit both of them.”
Without that support system in place, he says, he couldn’t have kept his sanity and his tennis dream alive. And on days like Wednesday, when he was facing a hungry young opponent who was hell bent on making a name for himself, Harrison was able to draw strength from a deep reservoir of life experience and perspective.
“Worse things can happen (than losing),” he says. “You always remember that.”