the way of the samurai: tsf interviews sam querrey



By Krystle Russin

TSF chats with Sam Querrey about tennis, his new condo, his goals for 2009, and wanting a date with Taylor Swift.

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Sam Querrey is driving his Range Rover en route to the Home Depot Center, an enormous athletic training facility in Carson, Calif. It’s where you might find David Beckham bending it on the soccer fields. Today, though, it’s all about Sam.

“I just got off a little while ago to get breakfast. I have to practice from 11:00 to 12:30 and then again from probably 1:30 to 3:00, and then I’m going to work out with a trainer from 3:00 to 4:00, and I’ve got to pick up some new ankle bracelets,” Querrey says, firing off a to-do list with nothing but tennis, tennis, tennis.

But this regimen is not without its rewards: Querrey is now the fourth-ranked American men’s tennis player, and in 2008 racked up some notable achievements, including his first title at the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas, putting up a fight against Nadal at the US Open, and participating in the Beijing Olympics.

When he’s not focusing on his craft, the 21-year-old Southern California native stays busy adjusting to life on his own. He recently bought a condo in the coastal city of Santa Monica. “It’s cool to have my own place and accomplish that at a young age, and I feel good about myself,” he says. The best part of his pad? “The hot tub.”

And there are other perks, too: “My mom and I, in high school, used to always fight about cleaning my room, or my dad about homework. But the last couple years, I moved out of my parents’ house. We never have fights. They’re my biggest supporters.”

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Querrey playing in Auckland, 2009.

Considered the next hope for American tennis by fans and experts alike, everything looked set for him to make his mark in 2009. He rode high into the Australian Open, coming off a strong performance the week prior at the Heineken Open in Auckland, New Zealand. Querrey eliminated David Ferrer in the Heineken semis before losing Juan Martin del Potro in the finals.

“I played well the whole week [in New Zealand],” shared Sam. “I got to Australia on Sunday and got to hit on the court for 30 minutes on Monday.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t recover in time from the grueling travel to maintain the momentum, losing to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the first round. He walks away from the experience content and better equipped for next time. “In the future, I might not play the week before grand slams.”

Querrey pulls into the Home Depot Center and politely asks if we can continue the interview after practice; he has some long hours ahead of him. His manners are obvious on and off the court; that laid-back persona. It is what one everyone’s come to expect from Sam, who enjoys playing frisbee, bicycle rides with his roommates, and texting friends.

It’s this same trait that helps Querrey shrug off the fishbowl nature of professional tennis. After a match, the newswires begin posting results, fans take to the Internet to rate the levels of play, and the pundits begin analyzing what went wrong. Now imagine that multiplied several times over; tennis is different from American football in that its coverage is worldwide. Querrey says he never pays attention to any of it. “I just go out there and play for myself. I try hard, and I couldn’t really care less what people write about.”

Nor does he feel intimidated by any of his opponents. For Querrey, facing off against Roger Federer and the world’s leading tennis players is like another practice session, just under a media spotlight. Currently ranked 33rd in the world, he doesn’t worry about his rankings in the grand scheme, but uses it to set some goals.

“I’d like to be in the top 20 if I can, and after that I’d like to be in the top 10 and win a Grand Slam, and if I can be number one in the world, that would be incredible.”

For day-to-day matters, the benchmarks are technique and having a positive outlook. “Some days, I’m working on my forehand. Some days, I’m not using my legs on my serve. One message I use every day is to have a good attitude.”

“I’ve just kind of always been like that, mellow and low key. When it comes to tennis, it’s just a game. The more I’m having fun and enjoying myself, the better I’m playing. I try to look at the best of things and have a good time.”

There is a reason why Querrey’s mentality seems different compared to other boldface sports names. He is a normal guy who spent his youth being a regular teenager.

“My freshman and sophomore year, I was a regular student with six classes playing on the high school tennis team, hanging out with my buddies. Junior and senior year, I still went to Thousand Oaks High School. I was playing a little more. I was playing a few international tournaments and missed a little more school, but I was never training three to four hours a day. It was something casual I did for fun,” he says.

“I loved going to high school. I wasn’t gonna not go. I’m still best friends with all my high school friends.” A few years ago, those friends began showing up to Querrey’s matches with body paint and bandanas, dubbing themselves the Samurais. “They paint their chests and go crazy and wear fun outfits and bring instruments into the stadium,” Querrey shared. “They’re the ultimate fan support group.”


Samurai at Indian Wells, 2007

“They’re all in school, so they can’t really come to all the tournaments. There are ten original guys, the real Samurais. There’s a bunch of others that come. On the Facebook group page, there’s about 900 people.”

Does he ever think about life without his own internet fan club?

“If I did play tennis but wasn’t as good, I would be at USC right now. I’d be on the tennis team majoring in business.”

USC had always been on his radar. Querrey scratched plans to attend the University of Southern California on a scholarship and turned pro in 2006. It is a similar crossroads his father, Mike Querrey, faced decades ago when he chose the University of Arizona over the Detroit Tigers.

“We talk about it all the time. I think he wished he would’ve taken a chance and gone pro in baseball and taken that opportunity.”

In the end, in 2006, Sam decided to go pro. “It was one of the toughest decisions of my life.”

For months, his deliberated over his options, unaided by mixed results on the court. “I’d play a match and want to go pro. I’d lose and want to go to college. I didn’t know what was going on. It was really tough. I didn’t know I was going to be successful.”

He stuck it out, turned pro and immediately started winning.

“Right after I turned pro, I won three tournaments in a row. I was doing really well. It kind of assured myself that I made the right decision.”

And that decision thrust him into an elite group of American men. He now plays alongside guys he once only read about– James Blake and Mardy Fish, for example — and has gotten to know legends like Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

“I’ve probably hit with Sampras 25 times and played exhibitions with him. The biggest part of that was he lived in California, right near me. We’ll occasionally send each other text messages. Andre, I haven’t hung out with as many times. But I’ve hit with him and been around him a lot,” Querrey says. And yes, he adds, you can tell the Bryan brothers apart. Bob is taller and Mike has a girlfriend.

“With the tennis guys, they’re all just regular guys. At first, you’re sort of a little bit in awe, but now they’re just another guy. If I started hanging out with movie stars, I’d be a little bit in awe.”

And which celebs would he be in awe of?

Megan Fox would definitely be in my top three actresses to take out on a date. Adriana Lima? I’d probably want to meet and hang out with her.”

Obviously, because Lima seems like a nice person. Who’s the third?

“I’ve got a little thing for Taylor Swift right now.”

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Taylor Swift on the cover of Blender

The only snag standing in the way between Querrey and his picks is his reputation as a homebody. More comfortable shopping and eating at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica than bar hopping in Beverly Hills, he could be too boring to hit the town with a Maxim hottie.

“I’m mellow. I’m not big on going out at night or drinking and dancing. Every now and then, I’ll drink, but rarely ever. I don’t like the taste [of alcohol].”

Which isn’t to say that Sam doesn’t soak up the nightlife; he just prefers the restaurants when he does so. He can be spotted at Hollywood hotspots Nobu and Katsu, but also enjoys fast food and homemade meals. “In the morning, I’ll usually just stop by New York Bagel Co. or stay home and make eggs and pancakes. I’ve gotta switch it up each morning. For lunch, I’ll stop at Quiznos after practice,” he says.

“Most of the time, Colby will cook, and I’ll eat it. I’ll kind of pretend like I’m helping. If we [he and Claire] want to cook, we’re actually pretty good cooks. If you name it, we’ll make it.”

Meanwhile, Querrey hasn’t let the Australian Open loss get to him. In the time leading up to the French Open, he plans to play in ten tournaments.

“I need to work on my backhand. I need to work on getting to the net a lot more. I’m a big tall guy, and it would help me to get closer.”

Since last October, Querrey has trained with new coach David Nainkin, whom he says was always in the picture. “I had a coach for about four years, but David was always in L.A. helping me out. We just get along. We have similar personalities, and it’s a good fit.”

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Querrey speaks at the Indianapolis Tennis Championships

Querrey has also set his sights on establishing his own charity. “I haven’t really thought about what I would do,” he shares, though options have begun to sprout. He has played in exhibitions benefiting causes like the Boys and Girls Club and has an upcoming exhibition match for Victory Gallop, a group in Cleveland, Ohio, that raises funds for therapeutic horseback riding for children. During his time at the Indianapolis Tennis Championships last summer, he spoke to grade school students about healthy living. Whatever the cause, he just wishes to be a good role model to kids.

And when Querrey’s ready settle down with a wife and children, the post-pro life of coaching and commentating — a la John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors — probably won’t suit him. “I don’t know if I’ll want to coach and travel and keep doing this.”

He isn’t joking about the importance he places on family. He often visits his old Thousand Oaks home, where he hangs out with his parents and plays with Maggie, the family dog. Over Christmas, he vacationed with his parents, sister Ellen and handfuls of friends in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, where they rented a house with a personal chef. In a few days, Ellen, who plans to support him at the French Open this May, will turn 18. Querrey doesn’t know her plans, whether she is having a party or not celebrating much at all, but it doesn’t matter. Like his tennis style, he goes with the flow.

“If she’s gonna have a party, yeah, I’ll go.”

He thanks me for the interview. After he ends the phone conversation, he says, he will go right to the kitchen to find “something to eat,” watch television and get ready for bed — he considers staying up until midnight a wild moment — only to begin another day like this all over again. Only to him, no matter how many practices and forehands he works on, it won’t feel like Groundhog Day.

“It’s different every day. That’s tennis.”

Krystle Russin is a freelance writer living in New York City. She has covered business and politics for online and print publications, including purepolitics.com. She also contributes to PBS’ Nightly Business Report blog, XChange.

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