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Friday, September 12, 2008
Davis Cup good chance for Querrey

Sam Querrey makes his debut as a U.S. Davis Cup player on the red clay against heavily favored Spain (led by Rafael Nadal) at the end of next week, and although this is a semifinal, the decision to play Querrey will remind some pundits of Pete Sampras' first Davis Cup experience.

That occurred in Lyon, France, in the 1991 final. Sampras had bagged his first Grand Slam title by then (the 1990 U.S. Open), so he had established himself as a big-match competitor. And while that final was played on a fast carpet designed to enhance the chances of France's fast-court singles specialists (Henri Leconte and Guy Forget), Sampras was also most comfortable on courts where his serve and volley game could shine.

Many of you know what happened. Unprepared for the all-around intensity of the Davis Cup experience, Sampras froze up. It was deer-in-the-headlights stuff. He lost both of his singles matches and couldn't wait to get the hail out of Dodge. U.S. captain Tom Gorman took a lot of heat afterward for throwing Sampras into the deep end, and it took a while for Sampras to rekindle his Davis Cup enthusiasm.

This situation, though, is significantly different. By choosing to tap Querrey to replace James Blake (who opted out, citing fatigue), U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe made a wise move. In Lyon, the U.S. was favored because of the superiority of its singles players (Sampras and Agassi), but the signs of a potential ambush were there to be appreciated: The French were riding a wave of emotion, playing at home, with gifted veteran players (even though neither French player had won a singles major). This time, Querrey will be playing with house money. Nobody expects the U.S. to win, which means the only pressure he'll feel is to play well.

"It'll be [a situation] where you've got to dig deep down, you've got to run down the extra ball and make the extra effort," Querrey said in a conference call Friday morning. "That's because you're playing for your country, you've got a team watching and you're there to prove something: how much you want to win."

In other words, the only thing he'll have to prove is that he has sand, which is different from proving that he can beat Nadal or David Ferrer on clay in Spain. All in all, Querrey will get a great introduction to the pressure of Davis Cup play, with a chance to show McEnroe that he's got the qualities on which the U.S. can build its Davis Cup future as the Andy Roddick-James Blake era draws to a close.

But it would be a mistake to interpret this tie as a mere audition for Querrey, because the U.S. squad can still win without beating Nadal (unless he unexpectedly turns up playing both singles and doubles). And I think Querrey is capable of winning one of his singles matches. Remember, earlier this year he took out some outstanding clay-court players on the red dirt, including Carlos Moya and Richard Gasquet.

"My game feels good on clay," Querrey said. "I'm tall, so when the ball gets up there, it's not overhead, but up around my shoulders -- in my strike zone. I also feel my serve can get through that court. I'm not a great slider, but I feel comfortable moving on clay."

A singles win under the circumstances would be a great way for Querrey to launch his Davis Cup singles career, and putting one up isn't out of the question. The pressure will be entirely on the Spanish, and not all of their players are named "Rafa."