Monday, July 27, 2009

Big Man Off Campus: Is Sam Querrey the Next Big Thing?

In 2009 American tennis is still undergoing a frantic search for the next big thing.

With each passing year the search seems to be more frantic and less fruitful. While our fearless leader Andy Roddick is still going strong (albeit not the strength we were accustomed to in the 30 years prior to his arrival on the scene), his two sidekicks James Blake and Mardy Fish appear to be losing steam. Meanwhile, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Jim Courier (26 slams between them) are just visible enough on the scene to serve as a painful reminder of what was, and what many Americans feel should still be.

Blake and Fish, as good as they have been, have always been unfairly measured against the old American greats. The unavoidable juxtaposition only serves to incite our collective yearning for that next big thing, the knight in shining armor who can deliver our tennis nation back to the glory days of old.

But with Blake at No. 17 and Fish at No. 22 in the rankings, American tennis is operating as a one trick pony these days. Blake at 29, appears to have very little left in the tank. He's also admittedly unwilling to change his tactics, choosing to die by the sword too often and refusing to make an effort to add the versatility and patience that most feel his game truly needs.

Fish is more enthusiastic, but almost the same upside as Blake - a prolonged stay in the top-20 seems unlikely.

If things had gone well for Donald Young (last years next big thing), the highly heralded junior whose name was on the tip of everybody's tongue for a while, things might not look so desperate for the U.S. Two years ago Donald Young was the youngest player to finish 2007 in the the top 100. But somewhere along the way he got swept out with the tide. At least his ability to win tennis matches did. With a career record of 10-34, Young has proven to be the perfect example of how high expectations can often do more damage than good to a young player.

Enter Sam Querrey. After foregoing a scholarship to USC and turning pro in 2006, the 6'6" Californian has been turning heads ever since. With a ballistic serve and forehand, Querrey has a game that contrasts with his laid back California vibe. Perhaps in Querrey, we have a player who is not only BIG. Perhaps we may actually have the NEXT BIG THING we've been looking for.

Querrey's ascent up the rankings, while impressive, has not been meteoric. He's an impressive specimen, the equivalent of a major league pitcher who can hit triple digits with his fastball but has yet to develop the cunningness ore execution level that would make his game truly lethal. To date, Querrey's results have been very good but not great. Inspite of some eye-popping results like 10 consecutive aces against James Blake at Indianapolis in 2007 and stealing a set off from Rafa Nadal in the 2008 U.S. Open (he also took one on clay against the Spaniard in Davis Cup play), Querrey has not been able to crack the top 30.

At least not yet. But the proud owner of a new condo in Santa Monica is only 21 (he'll be 22 in October), and unlike most tennis prodigies, Querrey got a late start on his tennis career. He wasn't an academy boy - instead he stayed with his buddies and plied his trade with his high school team.

"My Freshman and Sophomore year, I was a regular student with six classes playing on the High School tennis team, hanging out with my buddies," Querrey said in a recent interview. "Junior and senior year, I still went to Thousand Oaks High School. I was playing a little more. I was playing a few international tournaments and missed a little more school, but I was never training three to four hours a day."

The bad news for his opponents is that the the big kid is still learning, and the longer he hangs around near his career high ranking of 32 (he just reached it today, after two consecutive ATP finals, which both ended in disappointing losses), the greater the odds seem to be that the breakthrough will happen.

While Querrey is by his own admission "mellow and low-key" - he appears to have the intensity of Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High off the court - his style of play is anything but. He's so tall and possesses such an uncanny natural strength (he hit two home runs in a batting practice session at Dolphins Stadium in Miami in March) that his long powerful frame can produce a ground assault that seems at times unstoppable.

Here's some proof: He's currently ranked 6th in the ATP in service games won (86%) and 3rd in the ATP in aces (469 in 41 matches at last count).

Thankfully for American tennis fans, inspite of the better than average results that Querrey's gaudy power have garnered him, Querrey is wise enough to contradict his own mellow and self-satisfied nature and admit that his game needs improvement. "I need to work on my backhand. I need to work on getting to the net a lot more. I'm a big tall guy, and it would help me to get closer," Querrey muses.

Admitting his deficiencies is one thing, but actually eliminating them is another. Querrey is definitely in danger of relying too much on his big weapons - who wouldn't be with weapons like that? - and because of this, other parts of his game haven't improved quickly enough to allow him to climb the rankings in the same fashion as another lanky player, Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro.

The standard operating procedures for any climbing tennis pro is that very unique and intangible quality that is impossible to define but easy to sense: Hunger. Natural ability, it is said, is but a poor substitute for hard work. Nadal has the hunger. Roddick has it. Both are tirelessly looking for ways to improve their match performance. Sometimes with Querrey, it is very apparent that he has that same hunger.

If there is doubt about Querrey's ceiling, the doubt most certainly centers around his desire.

There are positives and negatives to being laid back. Being relaxed in order to deal with the immense pressure is one thing. But being too relaxed is entirely another. Accepting whatever results come to you in a zen fashion may be good for your blood pressure but it is not good for your world ranking. As awe inspiring as Querrey's natural proclivity for the sport is, and as much as it behooves him to remain down to earth and "chilled out," Querrey might benefit from seeking a balance that tilts a little more to the intensity side of the scale.

With a lanky 6'6" frame, Querrey could (and is) make a greater commitment to his court movement. He must realize that his size is just as much of a handicap as it is a weapon. His conditioning, while not deplorable, could be better.

During his 2nd round loss to Croatian Marin Cilic at Wimbledon (a match that Querrey could have won, but took his foot off the gas pedal in the 3rd set, blowing a 5-2 lead) commentator and former next big thing John McEnroe mentioned that Querrey had been offered and turned down the opportunity to train with Gil Reyes in Las Vegas.

I've hear from respectable sources that that isn't necessarily true. Perhaps Querrey has his reasons. Since I haven't spoken to Querrey or John McEnroe about these claims, I can only claim that I have heard that he pays his dues on the track just like his compatriot Andy Roddick. . There is no doubt that he and coach David Nainkin have developed a rapport that has helped Querrey's game. He's played three finals already this year, and although he lost them all, his career high ranking of 32 is quite frankly damn good.

Regardless of who he trains with and how he trains, and however damn good he is, the fact of the matter is that America needs Sam Querrey.

After a straight set loss to Robby Ginepri in the Indianapolis finals on Sunday (in which Querrey served 45%), the question has to be, does Querrey need America, and the pressure that goes with being the next big thing?

Either way, America is waiting impatiently for an answer.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nadal's Return: What Should We Expect?

Men's tennis has not been the same since that fateful day in may when world No. 1 Rafael Nadal was unceremoniously dethroned by Robin Soderling in the 4th round of the French Open. While we've been surviving on steady (and delectable) entrees of Roger Federer's record shattering achievements, with a side of Roddick's reemergence and a dessert of Murray Mania, the sumptuous dining experience has seemed a little less five-star without the mouth watering phenom known as Rafa on the menu.

After a much needed (albeit impromptu) two and a half month respite, the wait is over. The feisty Majorcan will begin on court activities on Monday July 20th, and, barring any unexpected complications, will take to the court at the ATP Masters event in Montreal, beginning August 8th.

But questions linger about his recovery. While Nadal's injury (insertion tendinitis of both quadricep tendons) seems relatively harmless, it has plagued Rafa over the years, and finally the cumulative effect of the injury reached a point where the unthinkable happened - pulling out of Wimbledon alludes to just how serious the Spaniards knee issues are.

And the questions wont just be of a physical nature when it comes to Nadal. Psychology will also come into play. Nadal's loss against Soderling in Paris has to be weighing on him; as he rehabilitates he must face the fact that his reign of terror on clay was brought to a screeching halt by a man who at the time was a virtual unknown. His confidence can't be at an all time high right now, and the injury issues will undoubtedly play upon his belief.

So, what can we expect from Rafa this summer as the U.S. Open series begins? We know he's rested, but we also know he's scarred. Will he be able to play the same brand of outlandish physical tennis that has delivered him to the pinnacle of the sport, and, if he does, what will become of his knees? Is he destined to meet the same injury marred fate again and again, or will this new version of Nadal embrace longevity as much as he embraces punishing his opponents?

"You really don't know where the limit is, and you really don't know when you can get to it," Nadal told the press at Wimbledon when he announced his withdrawal. "I think I reached the limit and I basically need to reset."

Certainly Nadal has a lot on his plate as he enters this next telling phase of his career. Undoubtedly, he's learned (or is in the process of learning) that leading the tour in matches played, as he did in 2008 with 93, is no longer a viable approach for him to take. The new version of Nadal will have to play less, play smarter, yet still retain that capacity for linear and alarming spurts of improvement.

Until now, Rafa has been an animal who likes to get his reps in. It's ingrained in his personality. We all know that he's borderline obsessive compulsive (just observe the way he arranges his water bottles by his court side chair), and this side of his personality has no doubt led him to over work his precious knees. If he were a student Nadal would be the king of all-nighters, feeding off his desire to be the best and running from his fear of forgetting what he has learned just when it's time to take the test.

In this next phase of Rafa's career he'll have to make changes that he might not necessarily be comfortable making. He'll have to lighten his schedule, shorten his practice sessions, and try to conserve energy while on court.

Can he do this, and still be the phenom on the court that we all know him to be?

One thing is for certain: When he returns to play in August, he'll be on the surface that has given him the most difficulty throughout his career. His lifetime record of 167-53 on hard courts is dwarfed by his astounding mark of 179-16 on clay. Add to that the fact that the hard courts are the roughest on the knees and it doesn't bode well for Rafa in the initial phases of return.

Still, this is Nadal we're talking about. If he finds himself across the court from Mr. Federer at any point this summer, we all know damn well who the favorite will be.

And that brings us to perhaps the most intriguing and delectable of all dishes that the ATP currently has on its menu: Nadal vs. Federer. Or Federer vs. Nadal, depending upon your allegiances. What will become of the rivalry now that Roger has spent the last three months fortifying his legacy just as Rafa has suffered the indignity of having his layed to waste?

How will the two greats match up mentally, physically, and emotionally, after all this?

As much as Federer has proven to all of us over the course of the French Open and Wimbledon, he has still not proven that he can get Nadal out of his head. Everybody else on tour is just a trivial little fly that he can swat away with one glorious stroke of his Wilson racquet, but Rafa, well, he's no fly.

It will be very compelling when the two finally do meet again.

A rested yet scarred Rafa vs. a lionized yet still fragile Federer.

Throw in a side of Murray and Roddick, pour a glass of Del Potro, and you just might have yourself one heck of a U.S. Open.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Davis Cup Is Missing the Point Yet Again

Call me crazy but I'm not completely enamored with the idea of watching James Blake and Mardy Fish flail around on red clay in Croatia this weekend (for the record, I love clay court tennis - it is Americans playing clay court tennis that I have issues with.)

Oh, don't get me wrong, watching is what I'll be doing, but I'm not sure if I'll be enjoying it, and more importantly, the chosen surface - soft and mushy red clay - makes the hair on the back of my neck curl up and go to sleep.

In fact, it's not just the thought of Fish, Blake, and Karlovic - all players who clearly excel on a different surface - playing on clay that makes me yawn. There are a bevy of other issues with this weeks Davis Cup quarterfinal ties that make me wonder what needs to be done to make this annual affair the bright and shining beacon of international tennis competition that it really does deserve to be.

Where should I start? And how critical should I be of a competition that in theory should be a wonderful promotional tool for the sport on a global scale?

I'll start at home, because the essence of Davis Cup is about using nationalism as a vehicle to heighten the public's understanding and respect for the sport of tennis. By generating interest at these local grass root levels, and perhaps getting people to watch the sport that normally would prefer watching the last Dodger game before the all-star break, the game of tennis gets a chance to win over the non-tennis fan.

So, Davis Cup, in all it's patriotic glory, is great news for the game, and for American tennis too, as it pursues its 33rd Davis Cup Championship, right?

Think again. This year's Davis Cup quarter final ties, for god knows what reason, are scheduled to begin just 5 days after the most grueling 2 months on the ATP tour have concluded. The worlds best players have been running themselves ragged over the last 8-12 weeks, training first on clay, then playing Roland Garros and Wimbledon for four of the last six weeks.

It's a heavy physical and emotional burden to carry for top players who in theory, if things went as planned, would have peaked last week, and who now would be very deserving (and in need) of a prolonged rest away from the pressure.

Take Andy Roddick for instance. America's best player (who by the way is getting better) just poured his heart out onto the Wimbledon grass. He's spent. Can he, or any other player that did the same, realistically be expected to pour their heart out in Davis Cup play just five days later? Is it fair for Davis Cup, even taking into account the small windows in scheduling that they are offered, to ask a player to do this? In Roddick's case, much to the chagrin of the U.S.A., either he has to play on one leg, or the fans, and the competition, must suffer.

Pick your sufferer seems to be the name of the game with Davis Cup, and until the schedulers can find a way (or provide the incentive) to involve the worlds best players, the patriotic celebration will be limited to a small segment of the population who lives and dies by the sport of tennis. The rest will be watching the Dodgers. Or Arena football. Anything but Americans not named Roddick, on clay no less.

Pick your sufferer was the name of the game when the U.S. Defeated Switzerland in the last round of the competition. I, for one, suffered, because Roger Federer was not involved. What kind of a Swiss tennis team does not have Roger Federer playing for it? What does that say about the competition that it can't get Federer to play?

As much as I love the idea of Davis Cup, and as much pride that I feel, as an American, that we've been able to bring that baby home 32 times, the facts are clear as day right now.

Something needs to be done.

Playing these ties just 5 days after the Wimbledon final isn't doing anybody any good. Not the players, not the fans, and least of all, the sport.