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.

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