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Sam Querrey wears a traditional Mexican hat as he poses for photographers during the trophy ceremony after the final of the Mexican Tennis Open in Acapulco, Mexico, Saturday March 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Enric Marti)

Steve Flink: Sam Querrey Looking Forward to US Open

It is Saturday afternoon August 26, two days before the start of the 2017 United States Open, less than 48 hours prior to the beginning of the last major to be contested in 2017. Sam Querrey has just completed a practice session. The 29-year-old American will be competing in his country's Grand Slam championship for the eleventh time in his distinguished career. He is hoping to make amends for disappointing first round defeats the past two years at Flushing Meadows. Two years ago, he was beaten by the crafty aggressor Nicholas Mahut in the opening round and last year Janko Tipsarevic—ranked No. 250 at the time—removed Querrey from the Open.

But as we speak on the phone, Querrey makes it abundantly clear how much he would like to do well this time around in New York. Querrey is understated as usual in projecting how far he could go in the last major of the season, but well aware that he has been playing perhaps the best sustained tennis of his career in 2017. His match record is an impressive 30-16. He has won two singles titles on the ATP World Tour. He reached his first career semifinal at a Grand Slam tournament in July at Wimbledon. All in all, this affable Californian has set himself up deservedly for a good showing in New York, although he knows full well that navigating the early rounds at a major is seldom an easy task.

Asked about his outlook for the upcoming U.S. Open, Querrey responds, "Honestly, the last two years here I lost first round so I am looking to win one round off the bat. I guess for me a realistic goal is looking to make the third round. Anything else past that is great. Wimbledon was my first semi at a major so I am not a guy that is starting to look at doing that week in and week out. But I hope I can. I am going to try my best. I am just looking forward right now to round one."

It is shortly after 2:15 in the afternoon as Querrey modestly expresses that opinion. Seeded 17th, he was expecting to collide with qualifier and countryman Tim Smyczek. But a short time later, No. 2 seed Andy Murray pulled out of the Open because his hip remained too burdensome for him to make a serious run at a second title in Arthur Ashe Stadium. And so the draw was revised. Querrey was moved from the top half to the bottom. If the original draw had played out, Querrey might have taken on Nick Kyrgios in the third round and potentially No. 3 seed Roger Federer in the round of 16.

Now that the draw has been altered due to the Murray withdrawal, Querrey opens his campaign against the wily and resourceful Gilles Simon of France, a 32-year-old widely admired by his peers as a human backboard. Now, Querrey might meet compatriot John Isner (the No. 10 seed) in the round of 16 and could earn himself an opportunity for a quarterfinal appointment against Germany's gifted Alexander Zverev, the No. 4 seed who has the tools and the temerity to win the tournament. Be that as it may, Querrey is not looking that far ahead.

And yet, he realizes that 2017 has largely been a triumphant time for him. Heading into the U.S. Open, he stands at No. 10 in the Race to London. This is the system reflecting points garnered solely in 2017, and Querrey is the highest ranked American in the chase for a place among the top eight players who will make it into the field for the ATP Finals. How much attention does he pay to his status in the Race and how determined is he to qualify for the first time ever at the prestigious year-end event?

Querrey replies, "I honestly didn't even look at the Rankings and the Race until after Wimbledon and then I was kind of like, 'Oh my gosh, I am 10 or 11 right now and London could be possible.' To be in this position, especially with Stan [Wawrinka] and Novak [Djokovic] out for the year, it kind of moves me up to 8 almost. It is one of those things that is like a pitcher who is throwing a no-hitter in baseball. You don't want to talk to the guy at a time like that. I don't want to talk about this, but it is hard not to acknowledge. I want to make London and it is definitely something on my radar. I have never been in this position before this late in the season. I am planning on playing five tournaments the rest of the year, starting with the U.S. Open. I am hoping they go well and hoping when I get to Paris to put myself in a position to possibly play my way into London. I am hoping I am No. 5 or 6 at that time but if I am 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12 in the Race at that time going into Paris, I know that if I make a semi there I could be in. That would be a great position to be in."

Why does Querrey believe he has put the pieces of his game together so commendably this season? Would he attribute his high success rate to experience, pushing himself harder than ever, or improving significantly as a match player? Querrey answers, "Definitely not experience. I think experience is honestly the most overrated thing people talk about in sports. I don't really have a good answer for you. The number one thing for me this year is I have done a better job of committing to play very aggressively from start to finish in matches, no matter what the situation or the magnitude of the match. I am playing aggressive and committing to the style that I want to play and that is very helpful."

Now, however, Querrey moves beyond that assessment to an explanation on a technical level for why he is performing so remarkably this year. He explains, "This is the first year I haven't played with a vibration dampener on my racket. I have played with one for 20 years and this is the first year I have taken it out. My coach Craig Boynton has done a good job of managing my schedule this year and I have played fewer tournaments than I did in the past and that has also helped. It keeps me fresher at 29. I really think it is a combination of things. Some people think that because you are having a great year you are doing something different, but I am not doing anything that different from what I did five years ago."

Asked to elaborate on Boynton's role and to expand on the benefits of casting aside the vibration dampener from his racket, Querrey says, "With Craig—or 'CB' as we call him—if I had to pick one thing he has done best for me it is getting me to really commit to that aggressive style of game that I want to play. Over and over, he reiterates that it doesn't matter what the score is: just play the way you should play. So if it is a tiebreaker and it is 5-5 and a ball is there to be hit, hit it just the same as I would if I was up 6-0, 5-0. He passes that message along to me literally every day.

Eventually it has stuck in my brain. I feel like in the past there were times I would get a little nervous and maybe lay off balls or not be aggressive when I needed to be."

Turning to the vibration dampener, Querrey clarifies, "Not using it has allowed me to feel the ball a little more, especially with string tension. In the past I would string a racket at 45 pounds and string another at 40 pounds and, because I had the vibration dampener in, it was tough to tell the difference between the two rackets. Now I feel like if I have the racket strung at 45 pounds and I want to go down to 43 pounds, I get better feel with the racket and better gauge on what the tension is. That is very helpful to me."

When and where did Querrey get the idea to get rid of the racket vibration dampener, and does he believe there might be a trend in that direction? Querrey answers, "It is a 50-50 thing. Rafa plays with one. Novak plays with one. Roger doesn't. I am not sure about Andy. It is literally 50-50 on the tour based on feel. I was in Shanghai last year and I was struggling with my racket tension and Craig said let's just try to play without the vibration dampener and see what happens. So I did and it felt awful for a week. I went to Stockholm and lost in qualifying [to world No. 234 Jurgen Zopp]. That was the first match I didn't use it. Then I just told myself I would commit to it in the off season and give myself a full month of playing without the vibration dampener, which was pretty tough honestly. But eventually I worked through it and the racket does feel better now in my hand without it."

One place Querrey has felt comfortable over the past couple of years, both with and without the vibration dampener, is Wimbledon, where he toppled top seeded Novak Djokovic and reached the quarterfinals in 2016 before going one round further in 2017. Why has he flourished on the lawns the last two years?

"It is probably my favorite tournament." says Querrey, "so it is always easy for me to get excited about playing there. I love playing on the grass. And I feel like I tend to play better the more matches I win and the deeper I go in a tournament. So the last few years I have gained a lot of confidence from winning in the early rounds of Wimbledon and it has snowballed. I have picked up momentum and started to feel good and play better at Wimbledon. I was fortunate to get some good wins the last two years."

In his quarterfinal triumph over the defending champion Andy Murray this year, Querrey battled back from two sets to one down to win the last two sets 6-1, 6-1. Murray was wincing at times during the latter part of that contest and playing through pain, but Querrey was bearing down hard and playing outstandingly inspired tennis on the grass. He was completely zoned in on the task at hand and very professional in gaining a big victory. How did he feel about elevating his game that way?

"Basically, like you said, I felt I zoned in those sets. I played great. Fortunately I was able to break in the first or second game of the fourth set and that gave me momentum back and gave me a little more belief. So even though I lost a tough third set, I felt like the momentum shifted back to me five minutes later and that was the key to the match."

Down two sets to one in the semifinals against Cilic on the fabled Centre Court, Querrey was up a break and leading 4-2 in the fourth set before bowing out. Did he feel he would have won had he pushed the contest into a fifth set? Querrey replies, "Possibly. But he was playing really well that match. I feel like I greased out the first set. I really didn't think I was the better player in that set so I almost felt lucky to be in the fourth set. I was also a little tired after playing three five setters before I played Cilic. I wish I could have held on and won that fourth set but he was better than me that day."

The conversation shifts to new terrain. I want to know what Qurrrey's relationship is like with the impressive brigade of young Americans like Jared Donaldson, Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe and others. Do they seek his advice? Does he offer it?

"We are really close," says Querrey. "But it is not seeking advice. I feel like no one really seeks advice in anything like that, but Taylor Fritz and Jared Donaldson live in Los Angeles so when I am home I practice with them. I actually just finished practicing with Donaldson. I have played both of them a handful of times. There is that whole group of Tiafoe, Opelka, and Kozlov and Escobedo, who also lives in L.A. We practice a lot. I am very close with those guys. I am older and we look at each other as friends and peers. I am cheering for them and they are doing well and pushing each other. Like you said, it is a talented group."

Does Querrey see himself as encouraging those younger countrymen? He responds, "It is a different kind of encouragement. I am cheering for them but I am not going to walk out to Escobedo's court at the U.S. Open to cheer him on. But I am wishing him luck. I am pretty focused in most practices so maybe that is what I am trying to give them is an example. It is similar to when I was younger and would hit with Blake, Roddick and Fish. Just watching them and seeing how they practice I learned. It is watching and observing and picking up things. At the same time we are all here at the U.S. Open at the same tournament so if I play them I want to beat them."

Querrey has won a pair of titles this year on hard courts, in Acapulco and Los Cabos, Mexico. Does his hard court game differ in any way from how he approaches grass court or clay court tournaments? "Honestly, it doesn't. I try to play the same way whether it is hard, clay or grass. I don't really change up my game based on the surface. The U.S. Open is pretty fast and the balls are light and fly through the air, so it is similar to Wimbledon in a way so I will go out there and serve big and play aggressive. I don't want to grind from the baseline."

If Querrey can replicate his form during his title run in Acapulco this past spring at the U.S. Open, he would be in very good shape. In that ATP 500 level tournament, he cut down David Goffin, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Rafael Nadal to claim the crown. It was a sterling run, but it was almost over before it began.

"My first match there," he recalls, "was against Kyle Edmund. I kind of greased out an ugly match. I would say I had a poor attitude on the court and I was fortunate to win that match. I was kind of pouting and complaining about whatever it was that was bugging me that day. That night Craig sat down to dinner with me. It was not that he laid into me but we had an aggressive talk and he said, 'You are not doing that again and I don't care what happens tomorrow, go out and commit to every ball and every point. I don't care if you lose 6-0, 6-0 but just do that.' So my next match against Goffin I just went out and I said to myself, 'Screw it.' I just hit every ball aggressively and was ready to live with it and I won 2 and 3. I played really well and it carried over into the next match and the one after that and right through the tournament. That was an important moment winning that Edmund match and having that talk with Craig that night. After that something clicked."

Another thing that has seemingly clicked for Querrey all year long has been his backhand, long known as his weaker wing. I mentioned his more productive backhand down the line, but Querrey responded, "It is really the backhand in general. Going back eight years ago, I would have said I am totally a forehand dominant player and my backhand I am just trying to defend and hang in there with it. Now I still feel I have a very dominant forehand but my backhand feels like a weapon now. I feel I can go backhand to backhand with anyone in the world. When I am set up and the ball is up in my strike zone I am going to pull a line. I am confident doing that. Something clicked in the last couple of years and my backhand has felt a lot better while my forehand felt a little worse. It wasn't a total flip. My backhand got 50% better and my forehand about 10% worse."

That is a tradeoff that anyone in Querrey's position would be happy to accept. The overall improvement in his backcourt game should carry Querrey deep into the future. He will turn 30 on October 7. In prior generations, that was an age when leading players assumed it was essentially over for them. Nowadays, the sport is flooded with performers who are thriving into their early and mid-thirties, and sometimes longer than that. Is Querrey encouraged by that development and the opportunity he might have to celebrate some fine seasons during the first half of his thirties?

"It is super encouraging," he says. "I think I saw a stat that this year there were 41 guys 30 years of age and older in the U.S. Open draw. It is not just Rafa and Roger and Novak and Andy who are almost 30, but Berdych, Feliciano Lopez [soon to be 36] and Karlovic [38] and the list goes on of guys still playing top 50 at a high level that are well into their thirties. I wouldn't have thought they would be where they are now ten years ago but it gives me a lot of motivation to see these guys out there. It makes me think I have got another five good years if I want. I am playing three to four fewer tournaments this year than in the years past, and those weeks off here and there give you extra years on the back end."

Meanwhile, Querrey senses that many of the players sense an opportunity this year at the Open with so many top players either missing or dealing with injuries that could be crippling. "Guys are definitely looking at this Open as a little bit of an opening. Roger and Rafa are still playing at a very high level. Maybe there is an opportunity now to make the quarters or the semis, but it is still going to be very tough to win the tournament. In the past years it seemed like no one was going to make a semi but those four guys Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. If you made the quarters it was like you had won it. It is a good opportunity for some of us but I also understand from the fans perspective that they want to see Rafa and Roger again because they have always been excited about that matchup."

Having said that, Querrey is not worried that the onslaught of injuries this year is a sign of a game that has become physically demanding on a level we have never known before. He says, "I think this is a freak year. I don't think it is anything else than that. It is just one of those weird years where so many top guys have been hurt but hopefully they will be back next year and for the years to come."

As the interview draws to a conclusion, I ask Sam Querrey if he is more excited than usual about this U.S. Open after building up his game and his confidence substantially across the season. He answers, "I am more excited and more confident than usual. Last year I came here without much confidence and the same was true the year before. Not only have I been playing well this year but my body feels great, so knock on wood. Nothing is injured now and my health is great. I am excited to feel this good and I want to win some matches here and keep this good season going."

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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