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Steve Flink: Querrey's Comeback On Course

9/27/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Speaking by telephone from his home in California at the end of last week, Sam Querrey came across to me as optimistic, determined, revitalized, and eagerly awaiting the year ahead. Querrey was dealt a rough hand in 2011. In June, he had arthroscopic surgery after hurting his right elbow while warming up for a match at Queen’s Club in London, where he was the defending champion. The timing could not have been worse. He was forced out of Wimbledon and required to stay away from competitive tennis for three months, missing the entire hard court Olympus U.S. Open Series, and then had to miss out on the U.S. Open.

Querrey had reached a career high of No. 17 in the world early in 2011, but his time away from tennis was costly in the rankings. The 6’6” American—currently stationed at No. 119 in the world—slipped  to a low of No. 125 before launching his comeback at a Challenger event in Tulsa a few weeks ago. While preparing for that tournament, Querrey had another setback; his belly button began bothering him considerably. As Querrey explains, “Three days before I was supposed to go to Tulsa, my belly button starting hurting, and then it I went to a doctor and [found out] my umbilical cord was infected and I had to go in for surgery. They had to open up my belly button and drain it out so it could heal, but fortunately it wasn’t a huge operation. I had to go under anesthesia. I wasn’t able to play the next day, but the day after that I could. It would still bleed a little bit but the doctor said as long as the pain level was okay I was fine to hit. Now it is fine and I have no problem with it. There is a little scar there but I am one hundred percent physically now with everything.”

In Tulsa, Querrey made a reasonably good start, reaching the semifinals before losing to compatriot Michael McClune, who saved a match point en route to his 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-4 triumph. As Querrey points out, “It was a good week for me. I was a little nervous going back and playing again for the first time since June, and nervous about playing a Challenger with the expectations. But most importantly I was there just to see how my arm would feel. I got to play eight matches in singles and doubles and had no pain in my arm so it was very important that I came out of that week with my arm at one hundred percent. My arm was a little tired when I lost, but Michael played well and it was a fast indoor court. He has got a big serve so there was nothing I could do on a lot of those points. When I had a match point, he aced me out wide in the second set tie-break.”

How difficult was it for Querrey to miss the two most prestigious tournaments in tennis this year after having his most successful season yet in 2010, when he won four tournaments? Querrey replies, “It was tough, but at the end of the day it was kind of out of my control and there was nothing I could do. I was bummed to miss Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and all of the summer events, but hopefully after the surgery this won’t come around again and I can still play each of those tournaments ten more times. I would have been more disappointed and more bummed if I would have lost in the first round of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, rather than being injured and not having a chance to play.”

Forced out onto the sidelines, Querrey observed his fellow Americans competing on the premier stages from outside the arena, and was delighted that the leading players from the U.S. fared so well in New York.  Querrey says, “I watched more of the U.S. Open than Wimbledon. Every time John [Isner], or Mardy [Fish] or Andy [Roddick] or James [Blake] or any of my buddies were playing, I tried to watch. I was happy for all of them and they did great at the U.S. Open. It was nice that we had four guys in the round of 16 with John, Andy, Mardy and Donald Young, and if I was playing I would have liked to have been the fifth. Mardy and John are playing the best that they have ever played. Andy can hopefully put together another good year, and hopefully we can have a group of guys in the top 10 and if not the top 20. I definitely wanted to be in the mix with them but hopefully next year I will be right there.”

The most surprising member of that American contingent at Flushing Meadows was clearly the left-handed Young, who had his best major yet, captivating the crowds with his verve, quiet ferocity and unbridled passion. How does Querrey feel about Young’s future? “I think he can be a top twenty player,” he answers. “He has had some big top ten wins and showed he could go deep at the Open. He is already 55 in the world so all it takes is a few more good tournaments and then he could be top 40. One more good tournament after that and he is top 20. Donald is on his way up, he is playing well, he is confident and he has got a good head on his shoulders. He is so talented, and being a left-hander makes him even tougher. His knowledge of the game is great and I hope he keeps doing well.”

When Querrey was gone, his closest friends on the ATP World Tour bolstered his spirits and demonstrated their belief in him by staying in regular contact. As Querrey puts it, “I talk to John basically every day and Mardy almost every other day. They have been really supportive, saying they miss me out there and they can’t wait until I get back. They have been really nice through my entire injury period with their texts and phone calls. I feel all of us Americans really get along well and we are friends, but we also push each other. When you see the other guys do well, it really drives you to work even harder because at the end of the day you want to be the highest ranked American, but you are also happy for your peers. Hopefully I will be back in the mix with them soon.”

Querrey admires the achievements of all his countrymen, but I asked him for his particular assessment of Fish, who has climbed to the top of the American ladder and up to a career high of No. 7 in the world. “I am really happy for Mardy,” he says. “He is one of my best friends and we practice a lot in L.A. He is 29 now and it just goes to show that some guys peak at 19 and other guys peak at 29. Your age doesn’t really matter. Everyone is different and if you look at the focus and drive of different players, you can do it at any time in your career. So it definitely gives me a lot of confidence and belief that hopefully my best years are still to come.”

How can Querrey take himself to a level he has never reached before, and perhaps establish a residence for himself in the exclusive Top Ten club? He responds, “Practice and confidence is a big part of it. In those big matches I need to pull through and gain the confidence to come through on those points late in matches and in tie-breaks. At 5-5, 30-30 in the final set, I need the confidence to go for my shots, and a lot of that confidence comes from tons of practice and playing a lot of matches.”

Querrey displayed a capacity to compete favorably against his share of top notch adversaries in 2010 especially. Of the four titles he garnered, he toppled Isner in two finals, ousted Fish in one, and eliminated Andy Murray in the other. He saved one match point in his final round triumph over Isner in Belgrade, and saved a match point against Murray in the championship match at Los Angeles. Those were no mean feats, even if he claimed all of those crowns at the ATP 250 level where the fewest ranking points are at stake. How much of Querrey’s progress across the next few years will depend upon a changing of his mentality, and perhaps a larger degree of intensity when the outcome of matches is on the line?

“The mental part is huge, “he responds. “ I think that is why Djokovic is playing so well right now. He just mentally believes he can hit every shot in the book and he can beat every single player on every surface on any day. A lot of that is just having the belief in yourself.  I feel like I play my best and I am most confident when I play a lot of matches. The more matches I win, the more confidence I get. And then there is a snowball effect.”

Querrey has shown unequivocally that he knows how to win tournaments. But why has he not been able to replicate the form he has displayed at the 250 level in the all-important Masters 1000 tournaments, and, most of all, at the Grand Slam events. Remarkably, Querrey has yet to reach a semifinal at a Masters 1000 event, and has never advanced beyond the round of 16 at a Grand Slam event. What will it take for Querrey to release his best brand of tennis when the stakes are highest?

“That is what I still need to figure out, “he answers candidly. “  Once your ranking is in the top 20 like I was most of last year and the beginning of this year, then the Masters 1000s and Grand Slams are much more important. That is where your focus has got to be. I need to figure out how to do a little better in those bigger tournaments and how to put up the results in those tournaments and not the 250s. It is not that the 250s aren’t important but the Masters 1000s are where my focus needs to be now and I want to do better in those. Once I do that, then I will have an answer for you.”

As Querrey reflects on his past performances, does anything stand out in his mind that might have prevented him from playing with more authority at the times of consequence? “I can’t think of one thing in particular, “he says. “ Part of it might have been a bit about my mental toughness. I lost a couple of tough matches this year, losing to Troicki [7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-5] in [the third round of] Miami and losing to Almagro in Rome [6-3, 7-6 (4)]. Those were close matches. I was right there in those matches and needed to have the confidence to swing out on big points when maybe I didn’t. Hopefully, I can get past that next year and when it gets close I can have the confidence to just go for it.”

I watched Querrey lose a hard fought, five set, round of 16 contest at the 2010 U.S. Open to Stan Wawrinka. Had he found a way to win that battle, he would have faced Mikael Youzhny for a place in the semifinals of his nation’s Grand Slam championship. In retrospect, how does he feel about that kind of defeat? “The match with Stan was great. I was bummed that I lost but wasn’t that mad because it was a great battle all around on a really windy day. If I would have won I would have played Youzhny but it is tough to play the ‘what if?’ game because draws open up like that at every tournament. It is tough for me to look at things that way. I just felt I lost a great match all around so I couldn’t get too bummed out about that.”

Meanwhile, Querrey must make progress step by step, match by match, tournament by tournament. Wisely, he is looking to gain as much ground as possible across the autumn, hoping to set the stage for a big and productive 2012 campaign, and anticipating some significant opportunities over the rest of this year and on into the coming season.

As he said at the end of the interview last week, “I am home this week and next week practicing. Then I am playing two Challengers in Sacramento and Tiburon, and then I will take a week off before heading to Europe to play in Vienna, Valencia and Paris. The ones at the end of the year I will be playing in the qualifying. I am looking forward to going over there and hopefully qualifying for all of them. First and foremost, I would like to get my ranking back in the top 100 so I can make sure to get straight into the Australian Open. I want to make a push in these last five tournaments of 2011 to put up some good results and get my ranking in the top 75 by the end of the year, and maybe higher. I haven’t really set my 2012 plan in place yet, but my most obvious and clear goal would be to get back to the top 20. The fortunate thing about my injury is I don’t have a lot of points to defend next year. I feel like I can go into basically every tournament and swing away, which is a good feeling to have.”

Querrey is just shy of 24. The next three to four years will be the most crucial of all in his career, a pivotal and perhaps transitional time in his life, a period when he will have the chance to reexamine his priorities, raise his stature and explore the full boundaries of his potential. I hope Querrey makes the most of these coming years. He is a decent and likeable young man who represents the sport honorably. He belongs among the elite players in his country, and the feeling grows that he will soon take himself and his big hitting game to a level and place he has never been before.

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