By Matthew Laird, Special to Tennis-X.com
These are tough times for Sam Querrey. Despite the fact that he’s one of the 20 best tennis players in the world, he hasn’t been playing like it so far this season. In 2010, Querrey made the finals of five different events on three different surfaces, winning four titles. He was the only player other than Rafael Nadal to win a title on clay, grass, and hard courts last year. But in 2011, he’s 6-8 so far, with two of those losses coming to Ryan Sweeting, another American who had never been ranked inside the top 100 until a few weeks ago. Nothing against Sweeting, but he’s not a player who Querrey should be losing to twice in the span of a few tournaments.
Querrey has a prodigious amount of talent. If you were to say that he’s just a big serve and a big forehand you’d be selling him short, but there is no doubt that he has a huge serve and a huge forehand. But he also moves very well for a man of his height, has good defensive skills, and can finish points at the net. He’s made eleven finals and won six titles in three years, and he’s shown he can play on all surfaces. While there’s no question that he’s got one of the biggest serves among active players, there’s a lot more to his game. At just 23, he’s built up the most impressive resume for any American player at that age since Andy Roddick.
Sam Querrey has routinely dominated the field when he’s played the smaller tournaments. In fact, since the beginning of 2009, he has more match wins at the ATP 250 level than any other player, and by a fairly significant margin, too. Despite his success at these events, he has struggled in the higher-tier tournaments. He’s never made it past the fourth round at a Grand Slam, and he’s made it to the quarterfinals at a Masters Series event only twice. He’s struggled in Davis Cup, as well, with his only win in five outings coming in a dead rubber against Serbia. Of course, he’s only played away ties on clay, so you may have to cut him some slack on that score.
In Querrey’s most recent loss to Sweeting, at the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston earlier this week, Sam put in a desultory performance in the second set, losing serve three times on the way to double-faulting on set point in the tiebreak. He then lost the third set easily to the lower-ranked American. Earlier this year, Sam had already posted one loss to Sweeting in a match that ended on a very strange note. Sweeting hit an ace on match point that the umpire called a let, but Querrey gave his opponent the point anyway and conceded the match.
On one level, that may have been good sportsmanship, since Sam said afterward that there had been several calls that he didn’t agree with that went his way, but it also seems to reveal something less than the fiery competitive spirit we’ve come to expect from professional athletes. It’s somewhat reminiscent of an episode from the first round of last year’s French Open, when Querrey more or less conceded a match against countryman Robbie Ginepri, admitting afterward that he didn’t want to be out on court. You have to admire his candor, but it’s hard not to question his heart.
Querrey’s unusual relationship with the world of professional tennis may emerge partly from his strange path to the world’s top 20. If you see Jim Courier’s documentary Unstrung, you can see an 18-year old Sam Querrey playing in the final of the 2005 USTA Boys’ 18-and-under National Tennis Championships, and then somewhat reluctantly deciding to try going pro, rather than playing college tennis. Unlike the vast majority of the game’s top players, going pro was not a foregone conclusion for Sam. It was a decision that he struggled with, and maybe some days still isn’t sure was the right one, despite how much success he’s had since making that decision.
Regardless of how exciting it can be at times, there are many facets of the life of a professional tennis player which are hardly enviable. Constantly traveling means getting deja vu from staying in hotel rooms night after night, always struggling with Jet Lag, and never being able to feel at home. It also means having to deal with hearing about your every mistake from the tennis media and – thanks to the internet – from tennis fans, too. Querrey used to be on Twitter, but he suspended his activity because of all the harsh comments he was getting from people who presumably weren’t fans of him, at least.
I am a fan of Sam Querrey. I think he’s an exceptionally talented player, fun to watch when he’s playing his best, and most of all, a genuinely nice and laid-back guy. It seems to me like he’s just not happy with his job, at the moment. When you look at it that way, I think it’s hard not to feel sympathetic. Even though there are thousands of people who wish they could be where Querrey is in his career, with his talents, that doesn’t make his problems any easier for him to deal with.
In most of Querrey’s recent losses, such as his loss to Viktor Troicki in Miami, 7-5 in the third, or his 8-6 loss to Lukasz Kubot at the Australian Open, or especially his fifth set loss to Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round of last year’s U.S. Open, the recurring theme was that Sam’s opponent – despite being outplayed for most of the day – simply had more desire in the key moments of the match. It’s this kind of ruthless, big-match, big-point mentality that must be challenging for a guy who seems as easy-going and friendly as Sam Querrey to muster.
That said, he’s had a spectacular career already, even without that killer instinct. Whether or not he’s ever able to adopt that kind of attitude, I hope to see him emerge from his current slump (he’s 7-13 since last year’s U.S. Open) and get back to his winning ways. If he can figure out a way to enjoy his job and get a little bit more cutthroat in tight matches, there’s no telling how much he can accomplish.
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