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Sam I Am

by Steve Flink

With the U.S. Open Series picking up steam, I considered writing about the players who came away with the trophies at significant events last week. The Russians Dmitry Tursunov and Anna Chakvetadze were the victors in their respective tournaments. The beguiling Tursunov claimed the title at Indianapolis and the ind
Sam Querrey salutes the crowd during an impressive run in Indianapolis.
ustrious Chakvetadze was a worthy champion in Stanford, California, following up on her tournament triumph at Cincinnati the week before. The two Russians looked confident and purposeful as they recorded their triumphs.

To be sure, the aforementioned duo had much to celebrate with their successes. They will make their presence known in the weeks ahead as the hard court circuit in the U.S. moves rapidly toward the last Grand Slam event of the season in New York at the U.S. Open. Tursunov and Chakvetadze must be watched carefully as they look to build on the foundation of their latest tournament wins. I admire both players; she will soon find herself ranked among the top five in the world, and he is a player who has top ten in the world potential.

But the way I see it, the player who captured the imagination of the public more than anyone else last week and the fellow who must be written about now is none other than Sam Querrey, who made it to the semifinals in Indianapolis before losing to Tursunov. The 19-year-old demonstrated beyond any doubt that he is the single best prepared player to rise to the top of the American game some time in the not too distant future. Andy Roddick will soon turn 25. James Blake is 27. Both men are in their primes, and they are in no hurry to depart from the upper echelons of the sport. But the guess here is that by 2009 and perhaps sooner, Querrey will be seriously challenging their authority.

I saw him play for the first time last summer in a televised match against Rafael Nadal in Cincinnati. Querrey was undaunted by playing a big match against the world No. 2. He went about his business effusively, swinging freely, enjoying every moment of his appointment with the renowned Spaniard. In the end, despite dropping a set, Nadal toppled Querrey, but not before the towering American made a big impression on everyone who watched him perform so commandingly that memorable afternoon.
The 6'6" Californian concluded 2006 at a respectable No. 127 in the world, gaining valuable experience along the way, finding out that he belonged in the world of big league tennis. Earlier this year, Querrey moved into the top 70 in the world after reaching the quarterfinals of Las Vegas and Memphis. He took some inevitable lumps thereafter on the clay and on grass. But then he had a remarkable week in Indianapolis. He was victorious in a hard fought battle of big servers, ousting 6'10" Ivo Karlovic from match point down, prevailing in a final set tie-break. In the quarterfinals, Querrey came through in another excruciatingly close contest against Blake, achieving his first win over a top ten player.

That match also went to a third set tie-break before Querrey prevailed. He released no fewer than 34 aces in three sets, including 10 consecutive aces in one astonishing sequence. I have seen a ton of tennis matches since the middle of the 1960's, but I have no recollection of anyone serving that many aces in a row. And yet, it was not simply his capacity to produce devastatingly potent serves that set him apart in his triumph over Blake. It was his consistency from start to finish as he never lost his delivery. It was the way he harnessed his power, using the serve to set up his huge forehand. It was his unbending competitive nature. It was his flexibility off the ground and his ability to come in at the right times.

All of those things impressed me. In some ways, he reminds me of a young Roddick with the way he builds his game around the big serve. He is always going to be an exceedingly tough man to break, and his game is still evolving. Querrey will inevitably develop a more reliable return of serve, a more acute all court awareness, a growing sense of how to exploit his size and strength. Like Roddick, he seems to relish competing in the upper levels of the game, to fully embrace the joy of one on one competition, to understand that he has the kind of game that can give anyone in the world trouble on a hard court. In time, he will become a superior grass court player.

After Querrey upended Blake in that stirring quarterfinal, he had to face Tursunov later the same day in the penultimate round. He had needed all of his emotional energy to overcome Blake, and he did not have much spark left against Tursunov, who ushered Querrey out of the tournament in straight sets. Despite that setback, Querrey left Indianapolis knowing full well that he should have many good opportunities ahead of him this summer. He lifted his ranking back up to No. 80 in the world. Querrey should be on the fringes of the top 50 by the end of 2007.

In recent years, some top American players have not fully lived up to their potential. Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent have been injured too frequently and have never explored the boundaries of their talent. Perhaps, for any number of reasons, Sam Querrey might not fulfill himself as a player. But I believe he will one day become the best player in this country and one of the five best in the world.

That day may not be very far away.

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