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Steve Flink: Querrey Celebrates Tournament of His Life

Over the course of a distinguished career, 29-year-old American Sam Querrey has known what it means to frequently translate talent into triumph. Prior to his appearance at the Abierto Mexicano TELCEL event in Acapulco this past week, Querrey had captured eight tournaments on the ATP World Tour, taking four of those titles during his most productive season in 2010 alone—the lone year he finished among the top 20 in the world. He has lifted his game periodically to remarkable heights, toppling top seeded Novak Djokovic in the third round at Wimbledon last year, ending the Serbian's bid for a third consecutive crown. He has performed with undeniable consistency across the last decade, concluding every one of the last ten years among the sport's top 100, ending seven of those seasons entrenched in the top 50.

To be sure, Querrey has been a top of the line professional, and a man no one can afford to take lightly. And yet, Querrey astonished the entire tennis world and perhaps even himself with a spirited run through Acapulco that surpassed anything he has ever done on a tennis court at any stage of his career. Unseeded, Querrey upended Kyle Edmund 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 before clipping No. 5 seed David Goffin 6-2, 6-3. In the quarterfinals, he eclipsed No. 4 seed Dominic Thiem 6-1, 7-5, advancing to the penultimate round with that win. Riding high, he battled from behind to oust Nick Kyrgios–the conquerer of Djokovic—3-6, 6-1, 7-5. And then the affable American capped off a spectacular week by cutting down none other than Rafael Nadal to collect the most important title he has yet claimed.

The triumph over Nadal was his first in five career confrontations with the celebrated Spaniard, and it was a sparkling piece of business from the outset to the end. The way I saw it, Querrey's performance against Nadal far surpassed the way he played against an out of sorts Djokovic on the lawns of Wimbledon in 2016. He refused to allow Nadal to dictate with regularity. He served with effortless power, fluidity and supreme accuracy in both sets and was not broken. He controlled the tempo of the contest. Moreover, Querrey handled the occasion of competing in a final against a renowned adversary with utter self assurance and sustained poise under pressure. Nadal searched in vain for ways to impose himself; his discomfort throughout the encounter was apparent to one and all.

Querrey found his range and rhythm swiftly, establishing a pattern of aggressiveness and assertion that he maintained all through the contest. He held at 15 in the opening game, serving an ace out wide in the deuce court for 30-0, releasing another untouchable delivery to the same spot to make it 40-15. Despite a double fault at 40-15 in the second game, Nadal held at 30 before Querrey took command again, commencing the third game with an ace down the T, holding at love for 2-1. Nadal conceded only one point on his way to 2-2, but he realized that Querrey was fully prepared for this battle, both physically and emotionally.

The Spaniard made a go of it in the following game, but his effort went unrewarded. Serving at 40-30, Querrey aced Nadal out wide in the ad court, advancing to 3-2 in the process. The 30-year-old southpaw was stellar in claiming the next game, starting with a forehand crosscourt winner set up by an impeccably accurate first serve down the T, finishing with a wide serve in the ad court leading to a delayed approach shot and then a forehand swing volley winner. That flourish carried Nadal to 3-3 with gusto.

Querrey, however, remained implacable. He held at love for 4-3, closing that game with an ace down the T. Nadal clearly sensed that his opponent was not going to cede much ground. He started the eighth game abysmally, miss-hitting his second serve into the net. That costly double fault put him down 0-15. Querrey pounced, taking a backhand crosscourt from Nadal and rifling a forehand down the line for an outright winner: 0-30. The Spaniard seemed uptight. Querrey's return was short on the next point but Nadal bungled a high forehand crosscourt as he tried to attack. At 0-40, Nadal swung his slice serve wide, but Querrey cut off the angle, sending a two-hander acutely crosscourt for a dazzling winner.

Having broken at love, the 6'6" American was up 5-3, serving for the set, and plainly in command. He began the ninth game with an ace down the T, his sixth of the set. Nadal looped a backhand return off a second serve, hoping to give himself an opening. His wish was not granted. Querrey stepped in for a clean winner off the forehand. A deep second serve from Querrey coaxed a return error from Nadal and carried the American to 40-0. Querrey erred off the backhand for 40-15 but sealed the set on the next point convincingly, serving big down the T, eliciting a short return from Nadal, and then cracking a forehand winner sweepingly into the clear.

Querrey had taken the set 6-3, hardly putting a foot out of line. Nonetheless, Nadal held at love in the opening game of the second set, connecting on three of four first serves, rolling a backhand winner down the line behind Querrey at 40-0. Nadal at last reached break point for the first time in the second game, but he was beaten by the pace of a bruising Querrey forehand crosscourt. The Spaniard netted a two-hander under duress. The American eventually held on for 1-1.

Now Querrey created a break point opportunity for himself in the third game, but Nadal erased it with a penetrating forehand crosscourt that was unanswerable. He held on for 2-1, but Querrey remained resolute, holding at love for 2-2, taking the last two points with aces down the T. Applying the pressure in the fifth game, Querrey reached deuce, yet Nadal kept him at bay, climbing to 3-2. But the American was in outstanding rhythm on serve. From 0-15 down in the sixth game, he swept four points in a row, taking three of them with aces, advancing to 3-3.

Nadal did not get discouraged by that artistic assault from Querrey. He held at love for 4-3 with an ace, sending that delivery deceptively down the T. The eighth game of that second set was easily the most critical stage of the match, presenting Nadal with his biggest opportunities, testing Querrey's resolve comprehensively. In fact, the No. 2 seed had no fewer than five break points. Had he converted any of them and therefore built a 5-3 lead, Nadal would have gathered such steam that he might well have been unstoppable. But Querrey was both bold and determined when it counted.

At 15-40 in the eighth game, Querrey aced Nadal out wide in the deuce court. Nadal had no business losing the next point, but he did. He drove a forehand pass down the line that was too high, but Querrey volleyed weakly crosscourt. An overanxious Nadal missed a backhand down the line pass that he ought to have made easily, sending that shot meekly into the net. Querrey aced his way to game point but an inspired Nadal went down the line off the backhand to set up a forehand down the line winner. Now Nadal responded to a backhand crosscourt approach from Querrey by making a brilliant forehand passing shot winner down the line.

Down break point for the third time, Querrey released a clutch ace wide to the forehand in the ad court. Nadal quickly garnered a fourth break point opportunity, and Querrey missed his first serve. But the American came in behind another crosscourt backhand, and Nadal somewhat surprisingly netted a forehand passing down the line pass. The Spaniard advanced to break point for the fifth time, but once more Querrey came through majestically, acing Nadal down the T. Another ace lifted Querrey back to game point and a service winner gave him the hold. Nadal had tested him to the hilt with nothing to show for it. Querrey was not found wanting. The score was locked at 4-4, but somehow Querrey must have felt as if he was ahead.

Nadal dealt with the situation with typical temerity. At 30-15 in the ninth game, he implemented a backhand drop shot that drew Querrey in. Nadal anticipated the American's passing shot, and punched a reflex forehand volley down the line into a vacant court. He took the next point on an errant backhand return from Querrey. Nadal thus moved ably to 5-4. Querrey retaliated with verve, holding at 15 with a wide serve paving the way for a forehand crosscourt winner. That made it 5-5. Nadal promptly held on for 6-5 at 30, releasing an exquisite running forehand winner up the line to take that crucial game. For the second time, Querrey was serving to stay in the second set.

The American was two points away from being forced into a third set when he stood at 5-6, 30-30, but he took on another tough challenge with relish, acing Nadal wide to the backhand in the deuce court. Querrey held on at 30 for 6-6. It was time for a tie-break. Neither man had broken in the second set. The stakes were high. The tension was palpable.

Nadal took the opening point on serve. On both the second and third points, Querrey missed his first serve but the Spaniard botched a couple of returns that he would ordinarily keep in play. Next, Nadal got away with a flagrant miss-hit that landed short. He managed to salvage that point for 2-2 with a forehand passing shot winner, and then moved ahead 3-2 with a first serve down the T that compromised Querrey on the backhand return.

Remarkably, Nadal would never win another point. Querrey made it to 3-3 with a scintillating forehand winner down the line off a forehand down the line from the Spaniard. The American surged to 4-3 with another forehand down the line winner off a backhand crosscourt return from Nadal. Serving now, Nadal faltered off the forehand. Querrey sent a heavy topspin return down the middle and the Spaniard was lured into an error off that high ball. Then Nadal directed a backhand crosscourt wide. Querrey was right where he wanted to be, serving at 6-3, ahead triple match point, in an entirely comfortable position to garner a title he will forever appreciate. He did just that. Nadal miss-hit a forehand long. Querrey had prevailed 6-3, 7-6 (3), securing his ninth career title on the ATP World Tour. He served 19 aces, with 13 of those untouchables released in the second set. That was no mean feat.

Querrey essentially controlled the climate of this confrontation with Nadal. He did not go for broke but his play bordered on that kind of ultra aggression that smothered his Spanish opponent. Querrey's forehand has long been a strong suit, but all week in Acapulco his backhand was extraordinary. He took it down the line at all the right times, drove it crosscourt with excellent depth, and, for the most part, returned brilliantly off that side. From Nadal's standpoint, it was a disappointing display. He did not impose himself as he would have wanted. He missed off the forehand when he could not afford to give anything away. And in the latter stages of the first and second sets, he pressed. That ultimately was what led him into defeat. Querrey was decidedly better when it counted because he correctly surmised that the Spaniard was vulnerable.

Nadal had crushed Marin Cilic 6-1, 6-2 in his semifinal as the 2014 U.S. Open champion struggled with an injury that hindered his movement. Querrey, meanwhile, had his toughest match of the week against Kyrgios in the semifinals. Losing his serve twice in the opening set versus the enigmatic Australian, Querrey turned the corner in the second set, thrice breaking his adversary. Serving at 5-6 in the final set, Kyrgios was stymied by a solid return game from Querrey, and a miscalculation of his own at match point down on a crosscourt forehand from the American that landed well inside the baseline. Kyrgios thought that shot was going long and failed to recognize that he was stationed inside the baseline and needed to make a play on that ball.

What made Querrey's clutch triumph over Kyrgios all the more impressive was the fact that the 21-year-old had played perhaps the best tennis match of his career in the quarterfinals against Novak Djokovic. Kyrgios served stupendously in that fascinating showdown. On his own serve, Djokovic was often masterful from the baseline, backing up his delivery almost meticulously, moving Kyrgios side to side intelligently, proving that no one in tennis has a better ground game.

But Kyrgios was in the zone on serve. He did face one break point at 2-3 in the first set, rejecting it with an ace. That set went to a tie-break. Kyrgios led 6-4 and double set point but attempted an enormous second serve down the T and double faulted. Djokovic moved ahead 7-6 but Kyrgios saved the set point with a heavy first serve up high to the Serbian's forehand that was unmanageable for the world No. 2. An ace from Kyrgios gave him a third set point but Djokovic thwarted him right then and there, unleashing an inside out forehand winner.

Once more, Kyrgios was impenetrable, producing his 15th and 16th aces of the set to move ahead 10-9. Djokovic then drove a forehand long down the line and Kyrgios deservedly was an 11-9 tie-break victor. The second set went with serve until Djokovic stood at 5-6. He played his worst game of the entire match, depriving himself of another tie-break opportunity that might have turned the battle in his direction. Three straight glaring unforced errors—two off the forehand and one on his two-hander—put Djokovic down triple match point, and then Kyrgios achieved the break at love with a forehand winner.

Kyrgios came through 7-6 (9), 7-5. serving 25 aces across the two immaculate sets, winning 81% of his first serve points and 75% on his second delivery. He never lost his serve. Djokovic faced only one break point and failed to escape from that corner. If Kyrgios always competed with the vigor, unabashed joy and cool intensity that he displayed that evening, he would win majors and reside permanently in the top five. But against Querrey he came down to earth again and made some dubious decisions.

Querrey was thinking with clarity and playing with conviction all week long. He was ranked No. 40 in the world heading into Acapulco but now has climbed to No. 26 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. He celebrated four outstanding wins in one week by toppling world No. 11 Goffin, No. 9 Thiem, No. 17 Kyrgios and No. 6 Nadal. Never before has Querrey strung together a sequence of victories that has equalled the run he made in Acapulco. Querrey knocked out two top ten players and four top twenty performers. Where Querrey goes from here depends entirely on him. As accomplished as he is, Querrey has sometimes seemed too content with what he has done rather than striving for higher goals and a wider range of successes. The hope here is that the realization of what he has just achieved will open up Sam Querrey's mind to larger dreams, deeper aspirations, and to the possibility of redefining himself in the weeks and months ahead.

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