A Sapling Among a Thousand Oaks
by Peter Bodo, TennisWorld
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I make the argument that U.S. players are "hard-court specialists" to a much greater degree than players who grew up playing on clay are clay-court specialists. The harsh reality is that blowing off the clay court season has become the standard MO for American (er, gringo) players, while those theoretical "clay-court specialists" of South America and Europe are more prolific and dedicated hard court competitors.
Okay, in a way they have less choice in the matter, because the majority of events are on hard courts, or courts that play more like hard than clay. Any player who wants to make an impact in the rankings simply must play hard court tennis. The same can't be said for clay court tennis. There's a good chance that, say, the top three American players may not end up playing more than a dozen clay court matches between them this year on the high-octane European clay-court circuit (I'm discounting Houston because it's not in the U.S. although it used to be in Mexico). But check my ESPN entry if you want to compare how U.S. players stack up against clay-bred competitors in terms of commitment.
My train of thought was triggered by Wayne Bryan
, with whom I had dinner on Monday in Camarillo, Ca. He's as dismayed as anyone about the way so many U.S. players simply write off the clay-court season, in what is a nasty, self-fulfilling prophecy and tautology: I can't play oan on clay therefore why should I go to Europe and waste my time trying to play on clay?
It was just what I needed, after leaving JFK at 7 AM and, after arriving in LA, jumping right into a rental car, and blasting up to Thousand Oaks to meet Sam Querrey
and friends. [. . .]
[. . .]
But there's another California, where people are still living out a 1950s-style experience centered around family, sunshine and sports. That face of California is the one that produced people like Ellsworth Vines, Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, Pete Sampras. . . and countless other promising SoCal prodigies like Querrey.
[. . .] But all the hype surrounding the more outrageous aspects of left-coast life often overshadows the security, prosperity and just plain normalcy that characterizes life for most people in California. So it is with the Querreys. The father, Mike, has done very well in the mortgage banking business; his two children (Sam has a hotshot volleyball-playing younger sister, Ellen) grew up without a care in the world, or at least none that had to do with anything more serious than the eternal question: Pepsi or Coke? It's still a very, very good life in SoCal.
We decided to go over to the North Ranch Country Club, where the Querreys are members, to do the usual dog-and-pony show of interviews, practice, general chit-chat. When we pulled in, Sam wanted to make a beeline for the In-and-Out burgermobile that was parked near the golf course; he'd discovered the previous day that they were giving out free burgers, and what's more unbelievably, inexplicably, friggin' outrageously amazing to a typical 19-year old than. . . free burgers?
But Sam was in training; he had just finished poking a turkey (white meat) sandwich around on his plate (there was a greater chance of the sandwich biting him than the other way around) and he resisted.
You'll have to wait for the U.S. Open issue of Tennis for the full-on interview, but it went well and Sam proved to be right out of that California athletic mainstream I mentioned above. This is a kid who played all sports and decided on tennis for the simplest reason of all: It was the one he did best. That can be a cruel blow for a family that doesn't have the resources to underwrite junior tennis training; it's still a very expensive sport in that regard. But the Querreys are lucky, money wasn't an issue. Mike dropped by for a quick chat at North Ranch and he admitted that he had done pretty well, resources were not an issue. Still, Sam's career "just developed" the way any other high school athlete's might. There was never a thought given to Sam attending a tennis academy, or concentrating full-time on tennis. The target was a tennis scholarship, preferably to the University of Southern California. That went down the tubes when it became clear that Sam had world-class talent.
This almost casual, maybe I'll be a tennis player but then maybe I won't attitude should never be dismissed as too cavalier or, heaven forbid, entitled. It's a great hedge against undue pressure, and young Sam seems as pliant and easygoing, mentally, as he is limber and powerful as a player. He has some wonderful assets in both departments. He is in the Marat Safin/Andy Roddick mold: big serve, big forehand, big body (Sam is 6-6). But Querrey has a looseness that Roddick lacks and Safin has disciplined and brought under control. And while he isn't angular and raw-boned, like Roddick, he makes a lot of power without a great deal of apparent effort.
Querrey is colt-ish bordering on gangly. He has slim, almost slumped shoulders, and he's lean - at this stage, despite how hard he whacks the ball, you can't see much difference between his right (racquet) arm and his left. Granted, he hits a two-handed backhand, but still - if Roddick is tensile, Querrey is elastic. There's an awful lot of potential in his game; while he's not a fluid and economical as a young Safin, he's escaped the big man's bane of stiffness. His power, as a stripling of 19, is very impressive; combined with his elasticity the one thing you can say for sure is that this is a kid who's going to have weapons. Big-time.
Curiously, though, the word that comes to mind contemplating Querrey is "potential": there is room to grow in all kinds of areas critical to tennis, and he seems prepared to take the trip. He's just 19, and last year he was the fourth youngest in the Top 150. Just to show how far he's gone, and how quickly, this is the kid who reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open junior tournament in 2004 (losing to Andy Murray) and still had no idea that in order to obtain a junior world ranking, he would have to play the ITF junior circuit. "We had no idea what that even was," says Mike Querrey. "We were like, 'Okay, so how do you sign up for that?'" A few Coffee Bowls and Copper Bowls later, Sam Querrey decided to turn down a tennis scholarship to USC. He was also the first player to win a Challenger event in his debut at that level (Yuba City, 2006).
The biggest criticism of Querrey's play on the big tour has been a failure to close out matches, which is not 3xactly a career-threatening shortcoming in a callow y outh of 18 or 19. He's taken first sets off the likes of James Blake, Rafael Nadal, Nikolay Davydenko and Tommy Haas, only to lose the matches. He won a round at last year's U.S. Open and, in the first Grand Slam, in Melbourne, he took out the gifted and versatile Jose Acasuso and Florent Serra before capitulating in four sets to Tommy Robredo.
Doyle, an Australian journeyman who has been coaching Querrey since the start of 2004, knows that Querrey has to get a handle on the basics - how to pace himself during a match, how to close matches. But in a way that's typical of the entire Querrey effort, he's not rushing to put the pieces together. There's no sense of urgency or need in the Querrey camp, and Sam himself is relaxed about his rate of progress. He's crept up to No. 67, he's notched up his training regimen and he wants to see where his game can take him. Sure he wants to be good, and he's been working diligently toward that end. But this whole thing about needing to be No. 1, or to win Wimbledon? It isn't even on his radar, until some reporter or fan lands it there.
When we were all wrapped up, I went over with Sam to the nearby Complete Performance Center, where he did some post-practice leg-work on one of those machines where you get hooked up to bungee cords that provide resistance while you do jumping or stepping exercises. He broke a good sweat and then, during a breather, groused about how a few of his pals had run through his Adidas account at Santa Monica's Adidas store. As an Adidas pro athlete, he gets a store credit of $2000, which two of his buddies managed to almost exhaust in a few minutes. "I was like, dude, that shirt is cool, but do you really need two of the same one, a track suit and a tank-top for your girlfriend?" The highlight of his visit was seeing Reggie Bush, the New Orleans Saints (and former USC) running back, who was wearing diamond earrings the size of tennis balls, and traveling with a comely girl with a bubble-butt the likes of which Sam never before seen.
After Sam and I parted, I drove over to Camarillo to meet Wayne Bryan
. He took me to a place called the Smoke House ( barbecue, not crack, but I was so tired I almost wish it were. . .) No Paganini or pesto dip here; they brought us a tub of deep-fried onion strings and some big honking steaks and Wayne declared that, as he was the unofficial mayor of Camarillo, he was required by municipal ordinance to buy me dinner. I immediately waved to the waitress: Another GE please!
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