What's wrong with Sam Querrey?
1. a question; an inquiry.
2. mental reservation; doubt.
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- He's only 23 years old, and he's ranked No. 20 among the world's men -- numbers that millions of lesser tennis players would swiftly trade for. He's won more than $3 million in his brief career -- and, yet, there are questions hovering around Sam Austin Querrey.
With the Davis Cup generation of Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and James Blake nearing the end of its sweet-spot years, Querrey is quite likely the next American top chef of the court. But, he has lost seven of his 13 matches this season. After securing four titles a year ago -- for perspective, understand that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were the only players with more -- he has yet to win more than two matches in any of his seven events.
What's going on? At Indian Wells, where Querrey lost to a limping Tommy Robredo (who didn't play his next match), television commentators talked about wandering motivation and questioned whether he wanted to be out on the court.
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"Not sure where that came from," Querrey said in a recent phone interview with ESPN.com while playing the Sony Ericsson Open. "I'm fine, really. I want to be out there."
The night before he had lost a tough third-round match to Viktor Troicki in the third set; it looked as though he had hit an ace on match point against him, but it was called out. Earlier that day, he had lost a straight-sets doubles match with John Isner. He was calling from a mall near his Miami hotel.
"The guys I've played, they've played well," Querrey said. "I could have won a few of those matches. Even [against Troicki], I felt I competed really well. I just have to be more aggressive in the big moments, be more consistent with my forehand. I've been a little tentative."
Tentative is precisely the right word here. Querrey has a big serve and forehand to go with it -- maybe not Roddick-like at the same age, but pretty effective strokes against lower-ranked players. Is it nitpicking to wonder if the best player of the next American mini-generation -- Querrey moves better than Isner and returns better, too -- can make the next move into the top 10? Is it wrong to ask if he should be advancing deeper in the Grand Slam events?
No one, outside of Querrey himself, understands the 6-foot-6 Californian's game like David Nainkin, who has been coaching him for seven years now. The longtime USTA coach hit balls with Querrey when he was a high school student in Thousand Oaks, drove him to his first Futures event, in Mobile, Ala., and to his first Challenger in Dallas. Today, their homes are separated by only five miles in Los Angeles.
Nainkin, who also coaches Mardy Fish, recently discussed Querrey while sitting on a bench in the bustling Sony Ericsson Open players lounge.
"Look, we had a tough start of the year, but if you look at the last three weeks, we've made some strides," said Nainkin, a former player with a subtle accent from his native South Africa. "Beating [Fernando] Verdasco for the first time in his career, getting to the third round at Memphis and Indian Wells. It's about confidence, and he's gaining in that department. He lost a high-quality match, a tough one [to Troicki].
"I think he's a better player than he was two years ago with the same ranking. He's stronger, better second serve, his volleys are improved from all the doubles he played last year. We're at a point now where we need to get back to working on his strengths, the forehand and the first serve."
Earlier this year, Querrey lost back-to-back matches on hard courts -- his best surface -- to Lukasz Kubot (No. 72) and Lukas Lacko (ranked No. 113) and later fell to No. 118 Ryan Sweeting in second round at Delray Beach. Has Querrey plateaued? Is this as good as it gets?
Last year, Querrey lost to fellow American Robby Ginepri in the first round at Roland Garros. Querrey had been playing well on clay, winning the title at Belgrade, but he fell to 0-4 at the French Open -- to a guy who hadn't won a clay match all year.
"Not into it. Mentally not there," Querrey told a handful of reporters after the match. "I mean, you know what? I don't know. Just did not enjoy myself out there. It's been like that on and off for, like, a while. I don't want to be fighting myself out there and also fighting the opponent."
Querrey was telling the truth, but that's not always the best career move. He was criticized widely and, in some ways, that cloud has followed him into 2011.
"He has set high expectations for himself," Nainkin said. "If you want to be good, you can't look at it any other way. The USTA has high expectations for him, too.
"His motivation's fine. He wants to play, wants to do well more than people realize. Why? Because he has such a laid-back attitude people question his competitiveness. Look back at the junior titles, the Challenger titles -- his history of competing and winning in finals speaks for itself. He has a history of winning, and that doesn't just land in your lap."
Said Querrey, "Everyone has some ups and downs, but ever since Memphis I've picked it up each week, and that's all that matters. My confidence is growing with each tournament."
Improving his first-serve percentage, Querrey said, is his biggest priority. He's working on his strength with the USTA's Rodney Marshall. Last year, he got to the fourth round at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, matching his best major performance ever. This year, he wants more.
How will he do it?
"Just having the confidence on the big points late in the match," Querrey said. "Stepping up and telling myself I'm going to make this shot, having the confidence to take a chance on a return, take a chance with big forehand. Not be skittish out there, play to win."
The process continues Wednesday on the clay in Houston, where he is the No. 2 seed and will the play wild card Sweeting in the second round. After playing Monte Carlo and Barcelona, he will return to the U.S. for a week, hoping to avoid last year's burnout in Paris. He's scheduled to play in Madrid and Rome and is considering an appearance in the team competition in Dusseldorf before the French Open.
Nainkin, for one, believes that Querrey has the stuff to be a top-10 player.
"Yeah," Nainkin said, "no doubt. He's just got to keep doing what he's doing, work hard and make himself competitive. He's lost some close matches -- it was 6-8 in the fifth in Australia -- and he's just got to start winning some of those close ones.
"I wouldn't be working with him if I didn't think he could get better."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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