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Steve Flink: Old pro staves off Querrey

4/12/2010 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

At the highest levels of the game, tennis is more than a test of skills. It is an examination of character, a battle of wills, and a struggle for tactical control. Moreover, this is a sport that requires immense stamina, extraordinary concentration, and considerable resilience. Sam Querrey must have been reminded of all of these things in his final round duel with Argentina’s Juan Ignacio Chela at the U.S. Clay Courts in Houston. Querrey could so easily have recorded either a two or three set triumph, which would have been his first ever tournament win on clay. Instead, he was ousted 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 by a determined and more experienced Chela, a wily 30-year-old who knew what it would take to negotiate a victory on a day when he probably should have suffered a loss.

Chela turned pro in 1998. He reached a career best of No. 15 in the world in 2004. As long ago as 2000, he finished the season at No. 63 in the world, and from then on he seemed comfortable residing in that territory, and even higher. He concluded 2001 at No. 71, 2002 at No. 23, 2003 at No. 33, 2004 at No. 26, 2005 at No. 40, 2006 at No. 33, 2007 at No. 20, 2008 (when he was out for five months with a herniated disc) at No. 143, and 2009 at No. 73. Those are impressive numbers for a formidable defensive player who stations himself far behind the baseline to return serve, covers the court remarkably well, and takes only calculated risks. Not surprisingly, Chela has never gone beyond the round of 16 at a major because he lacks the necessary weaponry, but he can be a difficult man to bring down with his counter-attacking skills and match playing prowess.

Querrey is on his way to celebrating his best season yet. The 22-year-old American was victorious in Memphis, and generally his growing belief in himself and his future is evident. In his skirmish with Chela, Querrey did not do himself full justice. The impression he left with me as I watched on television was of a young man who believed it was almost inevitable that he would win, and made the cardinal mistake of not tending to his knitting. Here is how the match unfolded. Querrey was pursuing the right game plan in the early stages, moving around his backhand in the Ad court to blast his forehand return for outright winners off the Argentine’s weak second serve, looking to end points quickly and decisively by unleashing his piercing flat forehand into wide open spaces for winners.

Querrey played his finest tennis at the end of the opening set. He had wasted a 4-3, 30-0 lead, losing his serve carelessly from that juncture. Chela held on for 5-4, and so Querrey was serving to save the set in the tenth game. At 30-30, he made an excellent backhand angled drop volley crosscourt, drawing Chela in. That opened the court for a backhand volley winner down the line for the American. An ace took him to 5-5. He broke Chela at 15 in the following game, making a drop volley winner, a low forehand volley winner and a forehand down the line winner off a short ball to move ahead 6-5. Querrey held at love to seal the set, connecting with three of four first serves, closing out that game with a forehand winner down the line and a two-handed placement down the line.

Both men held serve stubbornly in the second set, although Querrey let break point opportunities elude him in the first and seventh games. Serving at 4-5, Querrey had 40-15 but his mind seemed to wander. Chela caught him off guard by running around his backhand in the Ad court. Standing well outside the alley, he drilled a forehand down the line return for a winner. Still, Querrey served an ace for a third game point, which he double faulted away, sending a kick serve long. Sensing his chance, Chela connected with a sparkling forehand pass winner up the line, and then he ran around his backhand for another aggressive forehand return. Querrey missed a forehand inside-in, and the set was over.

Querrey collected himself swiftly, and broke Chela in the opening game of the final set. But he essentially gave it right back. At 15-40 in the second game, Querrey netted a running forehand down the line. That shot had fatigue written all over it. Querrey fought on, holding from 15-40 to reach 2-2, saving three break points in that game. But now he was making clusters of errors, recklessly going for forehand winners that were bound not to work. At 3-4, Querrey made only one of four first serves, and lost that game at love, committing two unforced errors off the ground, double faulting to trail 0-40. Ahead 5-3, Chela held at 15 to run out the match, winning 12 of the last 15 points to close out a 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 victory. Chela had paced himself well, allowing Querrey to self destruct, refusing to give much away himself.

For Chela, the US Clay Courts title was his fifth ATP World Tour tournament win, and his first since 2007. He was opportunistic and cagey, intelligent and resourceful. He played first rate, clay court tennis, and deserved his win. He became aggressive and hit his share of winners, but only when the percentages were in his favor. Risks he took, but he knew exactly what he was doing and he was not attempting shots he could not make. Chela was still playing very much within himself. In turn, he frustrated Querrey with his propensity to extend rallies. In the end, Querrey sorely lacked the patience and the discipline to get the job done.

And so Chela capped off an impressive week by eclipsing Querrey on red American clay. He realized that the American was too impetuous on the day, and took full advantage of his opponent’s vulnerabilities. Querrey had let a nice opportunity slip from his grasp, but the guess here is that the Californian will not let this springtime defeat prevent him from achieving a good many successes over the rest of 2010. Clay remains his weakest surface, but Querrey will come away from this loss stronger and more resilient. Sometimes an old pro can steal a victory from a younger adversary by being mentally tougher and more focused on the task at hand. In plain and simple terms, that is what happened in Houston as Chela toppled Querrey.

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