Sam Querrey is about to find out that the drain in Spain is mainly on the brain, as he makes his debut as a U.S. singles player in what appears to be a suicide mission in a bullring in Madrid. This will be a semifinal against a Spanish team led by Rafael Nadal. The Spanish squad will be highly motivated for the tie because it has a 2-1 record in finals since 2000, but has only won the title once since Nadal emerged as a top player.
The USTA recently hosted a conference call with Querrey. Sam is down in Austin, Texas, practicing with the Bryan brothers and Andy Roddick. He said they hadn't really talked very much about the Davis Cup yet, which is probably a good idea. No point worrying about what the lion's breath smells like until you get tossed into the cage, right? The best thing the guys can do for Sam now is keep him relaxed.
Querrey is the first singles player to crack the U.S. lineup since February 2004. This stat speaks volumes about the commitment of the top U.S. players, led by Roddick, the Bryans, James Blake and Mardy Fish. This might not be the best pool of talent the U.S. has ever had -- it might not even be the third- or fourth-best. At the same time, fully and comparably invested Davis Cup players like, say, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith played in an era when it was less costly and demanding to sign up for Davis Cup duty. The current U.S. squad hasn't enjoyed wild success, but then neither has Spain's -- given the level of talent that the nation has had available for about a decade now. The nature of the Davis Cup challenge has changed, and drastically.
Querrey said he probably won't really feel the nerves until he gets to Spain, and while he would prefer to make his debut as a Davis Cup player at a home tie, on hard courts, he's fine with the conditions. "[U.S. captain] Pat [McEnroe] called me last Saturday, I think it was, and told me that James [Blake] won't be on the squad, so I should be ready -- I might be the guy for the U.S. He said, 'Sit tight, I'll let you know in a few days.'"
Sam sat, although he admits doing a little squirming. "I felt like a pitcher sitting in the bullpen, waiting for the manager to call," he said. "I got the call on Monday. Pat said, 'Be ready to go.'"
So finally the 20-year-old, 6-foot-6 power server sheds his perpetual practice-partner role to step into a singles player's shoes. On the surface, it might seem like he's being tossed into the deep end, but let's face it, this is a no-lose situation for Querrey -- unless he faints while he stands at the net for the coin toss, with the roar of 20,000 partisan Spanish fans ringing in his ears.
My feeling is that if this is a trial by fire, the flame is a cool one. Nobody expects the U.S. to win, therefore it's less a matter of how much Querrey might disappoint than how much he might impress. I have to think this was part of McEnroe's strategy for choosing Querrey, although it isn't like he had 101 viable options. It's a clear sign that McEnroe is already thinking of the team's future, but that doesn't mean the U.S. views this as a throwaway tie. Nobody is stupid enough to believe that a semifinal is either insurmountable or worth squandering after the effort plowed into getting there. Which brings us back to the selection of Querrey.
Granted, one excellent clay-court performance (Monte Carlo, where Querrey was a quarterfinalist with wins over Carlos Moya, a former Roland Garros champ, and Richard Gasquet) doesn't exactly herald clay-court expertise. But Querrey might be a better clay-court player than his hard-court credentials -- size and reliance on power, especially on serve -- might indicate. Here's how he put it: "My game feels good on clay. I'm tall, so when ball gets up it's not over my head, but up around my shoulders -- in the strike zone. Also, I feel like I can get my serve through on a clay court [with enough pace to trouble returners]. I'm not a great slider, but I feel comfortable moving on clay."
Some of you know how I feel about sliding -- it's a handy but easily overrated talent (or proclivity). General comfort getting around the court and playing the kind of cat-and-mouse games that often characterize red-dirt tennis is a better asset. And let's remember that the slowness of the clay can be an asset to tall, lanky players, especially those who aren't especially quick. It gives them that much more time to set up for their own shots, assuming the player is consistent to begin with and willing to rally and probe. Querrey has excellent feel and has never relied too much on his big serve or volley to win matches. He has many of the tools required for success on clay, especially when you compare him to some of the other big men.
The other factor worth noting is that Querrey's record on clay this spring was partly the result of the conditioning and fitness work he did with Gil Reyes, the former trainer of Andre Agassi, who's now officially part of the adidas high-performance team. Since working with Reyes, Querrey has gone to another level -- not as a ball striker, but as a fit athlete armed with the kind of stamina and strength that long matches on clay demand. His commitment to fitness was evident when, commenting on what he learned from his nice run at the U.S. Open, he said: "I've got to play with confidence. I took care of my body in New York. I did my stretches, had massages, good food and plenty of water. I have to keep that up."
So it seems like this former cheeseburger-scarfing, laid-back Southern California dude has gone the Andy Murray route, and it has paid dividends in his game. Of course, there's still this little matter of the lion (or bull, if you prefer), but I think Querrey's basic personality is well-suited to Davis Cup play. He doesn't get too high or too low, and he's handled the pressure of early success very well. This tie is not just a difficult assignment; it's also a great opportunity.
At the very least, Querrey will be glad to escape the kind of hazing he's had to suffer as a practice partner. How often can a guy stand at the baseline with his back to the net, waiting for Andy Roddick or James Blake to fire a first serve at his butt? Querry's most acutely embarrassing memory of hazing is the time, in Palm Springs, Calif., when Roddick, Blake and the Bryans set up a karaoke machine in the lobby of the team hotel and ordered Querrey to sing for a busload of 200 USTA staffers.
If you've ever heard Sam Querrey sing, you'll understand why he's saying Bring on the lion!
Peter Bodo is a senior writer for TENNIS Magazine.