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U.S. Tennis Looks to a 6-Foot-6 Answer

July 11, 2006|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

The teenager being tabbed as the next big thing in U.S. men's tennis was not difficult to spot.

Sam Querrey stood out with his 6-foot-6, 200-pound frame, but his karaoke impressions of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears in the lobby of a Rancho Mirage hotel really turned heads.

"It wasn't too bad, once I got up there and got into it," Querrey said of his singing. "I thought I was pretty good. I don't know what other people thought, though."

With a 135-mph serve and formidable forehand, the 18-year-old from Thousand Oaks does a better impression of Andy Roddick anyway.

Querrey on Sunday collected his second victory in three tournaments since turning pro last month, days after turning down a scholarship to USC. This time it was the $50,000 USTA North Shore Pro Tennis Championships, a challenger tournament in Winnetka, Ill., in which he beat Andrea Stoppini of Italy in the final, 6-2, 6-3.

"I'm a big believer in Sam Querrey. He's the real deal," said Eliot Teltscher, the director of High Performance, the U.S. Tennis Assn.'s player-development program. "Whether he'll be No. 1 or No. 10, or No. 50, we don't know yet.

"But is the potential there? Absolutely."

Querrey's success couldn't be happening at a better time for the USTA, which a week ago at Wimbledon was addressing the worrisome state of American tennis and its next generation of players.

The USTA was stung by the criticism of its player development program after Roddick, James Blake and 16-year-old junior-level player Donald Young all lost in the third round at Wimbledon. Roddick dropped to No. 11 in the ATP rankings while Blake is No. 6. Young, who was expected to be the next U.S. star, has yet to win a challenger or tour-level match since turning pro in 2004. He has never been ranked higher than No. 530 and is now at No. 603.

Querrey, on the other hand, has had a startling climb in the rankings, jumping from No. 1,146 to No. 207 in less than a year.

"I don't really know what other people's expectations are, but mine are definitely getting higher every day," he said after winning Sunday. "I'm just trying to do my own thing, and hopefully, good things will keep happening."

U.S. Davis Cup team captain Patrick McEnroe keeps a close eye on the country's most promising young players and likes what he sees in Querrey.

"He's sort of moved his way to the top of that list," McEnroe said. "He's definitely got the game, and the right frame of mind, and I have to say, there aren't that many."

Unlike Young and others, Querrey played only part-time as a junior, winning national events in each of the three highest age groups in the last four years, but limiting international play. The low-profile approach kept him largely under wraps until the right-hander won consecutive International Tennis Federation junior events in April 2005.

Within days of turning pro, Querrey made his presence felt, winning the $50,000 Sunset-Moulding Yuba City Racquet Club Challenger. USTA officials could not recall a challenger-level tournament -- one step below the ATP tour -- ever being won by a player in his debut. The victory, good for a $7,200 winner's purse, came four days after Querrey signed with SFX Sports Group and four days before he graduated from Thousand Oaks High. "It gave a little assurance that I made the right decision to turn pro," Querrey said.

The Davis Cup team helped too.

Querrey has twice served as a practice partner for members Roddick, Blake and 2006 Wimbledon men's doubles champions Mike and Bob Bryan during weeks before Davis Cup play -- accompanying them to matches in Belgium in September and to Rancho Mirage in April.

"I've just been playing with those guys a lot, and I feel like I'm on that level -- or at least, I feel like I'm right there next to them," Querrey said. "When we play practice sets and we play games, I'm pretty close, so I think, one day, I can beat them."

He has been a quick study and a good sport -- the karaoke-singing was done at the behest of Davis Cup members -- but it was a simple act of courtesy that impressed McEnroe.

"He's one of the few players that has ever sent me a thank-you note," McEnroe said. "He appreciates it, and that means a lot."

Querrey's work with the Davis Cup team has led to other opportunities.

When Blake needed a hitting partner while in Chicago in December, he called on Querrey.

"I've been involved in a lot of things where people are asking about the future of U.S. men's tennis, and who's coming up, and my answer right now is Sam Querrey," said Blake, who in March had to come from behind to beat his practice partner, 1-6, 6-1, 6-3, in the second round of the Pacific Life Open. Querrey was in the tournament as an amateur wild-card entrant.

In April, Querrey spent a week practicing with Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open champion's home in Austin, Texas. Two days in June were spent working with eight-time Grand Slam winner Andre Agassi.

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