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A grounded Querrey saves his flashy side for the tennis court

August 27, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- Sam Querrey had just walloped his way to one of the biggest wins of his tennis career but now, a bit later, he couldn't find his coach or his parents.

"I don't know where they are," the lanky 20-year-old said, grinning. "I want to call them, but, to be honest, I just dropped my cellphone in the toilet."

The wry grin didn't leave his face, even when he couldn't find an open chair in the players lounge.

"Looks like we're going to sit on the floor," he said, pointing to a patch of carpet.

And so it was that I found myself sitting on the floor of the bustling players lounge at the U.S. Open on Tuesday, talking to a kid who is a rare breed. Calm and collected, Querrey, who is from Thousand Oaks, is as unpretentious a tennis pro as exists at this gathering of sometimes insufferable stars. Despite hardly making a dent in the general sporting public's consciousness thus far, he is also America's most promising and accomplished male player under drinking age.

If you doubt his talent, you didn't see the game Querrey flashed during his opening match Tuesday afternoon against 22nd-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. Last August, Berdych was a top-10 player. He has one win over Roger Federer and three over Rafael Nadal. Last time he played Querrey, five months back, Berdych lost just three games.

But Tuesday, in one of this tournament's most surprising early results, the lanky, 6-foot-6 Querrey did the steamrolling, winning, 6-3, 6-1, 6-2. It was a match that fully displayed the kind of loose, hard-hitting, potentially devastating game that should warm the hearts of those worried about the future of American tennis.

"One of those days where everything just goes right," said Querrey, who felt so good about his win that he called it one of the top three matches he's played. Querrey broke Berdych, possessor of a cannon serve, twice to start the match. He played the rest of the way with an easy flow, backing his big serve with an aggressive baseline game, pinning Berdych back with strokes that seemed to catapult from his racket, his arms free of any noticeable tension.

"I just like to be loose," Querrey said. "I've always been that way. . . . I just do what works for me."

It's refreshing, in this the age of the pampered and insecure, to find a young athlete who seems as comfortable in his own skin as this one. Maybe it's the way he grew up. American tennis is overly infatuated with sending young players away from their parents and off to assembly-line tennis factories.

Querrey, despite the promise he showed as a junior player, stayed home. He played baseball, soccer and even a bit of football. Instead of turning pro when he was 15, he stayed in high school and nearly went to USC.

What emerged from all this was an even-keel kid who didn't flounder the way so many young, academy-trained American hopefuls have. He turned pro two years ago and quickly zoomed to a high of No. 38 on the men's pro tour. Already he has beaten James Blake, taken a set off of Nadal, given Federer a decent test on clay, and won his first tournament last March in Las Vegas.

"The other players don't want to play this kid," said Wayne Bryan, a teaching pro from Camarillo and father of the No. 1-ranked Bryan brothers doubles team.

Querrey could be a top-10 player within the next few years, Bryan added. "He's got the serve, moves well for a big man and hits the tar out of the ball. Plus, he knows what this is all about. He's not going to let any of this go to his head and stop him from improving."

I have to say, from my bit of time around Querrey, these words seemed accurate.

Tuesday, when he pointed to the floor of the players lounge, it had been me who balked, citing his match.

"Nah," replied the guy who soon could be the next big thing in American tennis. "This is just fine."

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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