Four American Guns

Monday, June 14, 2010 /by

102037426 by Pete Bodo

It's entirely possible that we'll see an American player in the final of Wimbledon; there's no news in that. But it won't necessarily be Andy Roddick, and that does qualify as noteworthy.

Roddick has been in three Wimbledon finals—all of them ending in ruin at the hands of Roger Federer and his superb grass-court game. But on Sunday, Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish played in the Queen's Club final (Querrey won that battle), and thereby positioned themselves as contenders at Wimbledon. Queen's, after all, has always been the bellwether warm-up event.

The winner at Queen's has been in the Wimbledon final five times since 1999. That statistic misrepresents the significance of the Queen's results, because Roger Federer—Wimbledon finalist seven years running now, six of them successful—decided some time ago to take a more low-key approach to his Wimbledon warm-ups and play at Halle instead of Queen's. But while Federer cooled his jets in Germany, most of the top names turned out to play Queen's. This year, the field included Roddick, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, leaving Federer the odd man out in this gathering of Wimbledon contenders. 

Last year, Andy Murray beat James Blake in the final. Andy Roddick has won at Queens four times (he's never lost a final there). Roddick and Blake have carried the stars and stripes at Queens for the better part of a decade. But the last American to have won the event before Roddick was Pete Sampras, in 1999—a year when Can Anyone Stop the Yanks? was a more persuasive story line than our current, Whatever Happened to American Tennis?

And that's why the Querrey vs. Fish final was such welcome news to U.S. fans and tennis establishment types. Among other things, it confirmed that Fish, a 28-year old who woke up early this year to realize that his career might be passing him by, can still be an impact player on grass - a surface especially well-suited to his attacking proclivities. It also exonerated Querrey, who had raised eyebrows—and serious questions—at Roland Garros a few weeks ago, when he pretty much quit trying in the course of his first-round loss to countryman Robby Ginepri.

In Paris, Querrey complained that he was burned-out and homesick, and admitted that his desultory loss to Ginepri was "unprofessional." His greatest sin, though, may have been the honesty with which he articulated his actions and feelings. Nobody likes a truth-teller, not really. Querrey endured a storm of criticism, but he performance at Queen's is de facto vindication. The story line morphed from Querrey is a quitter into There's no quit in that Querrey. This was the second most timely self-affirmation we've witnessed in the past few weeks, the first being Rafael Nadal's win in Paris.

So now we have four legitimate Wimbledon contenders with USA attached to their names, as well as a few guys capable of doing major damage on the grass. Let's take a quick look at them:

Andy Roddick (34-9 at Wimbledon; best result: finalist, three times): This thing with Andy and Wimbledon, Andy and Roger, now . . .it's personal. That's a mixed blessing, as Andy Murray might be inclined to tell you. Why do I bring Murray into it? Well, the reasons may be different, but success at Wimbledon would be of a different order of magnitude for those two men than anyone else in the draw.

Sure, Federer is still tracking Pete Sampras, who has one more Wimbledon title (with seven). But let's be real—can anything mean more than that single, elusive Wimbledon title Murray and Roddick seek?  Murray is the great British hope, carrying the expectations of a champion-starved nation that hosts the most prestigious tennis tournament of them all. Roddick's own quest is more intense, because it's more about Roddick and the way he views himself. He reminds us more and more of Goran Ivanisevic, who burned for years to win Wimbledon and was man enough to let everyone know it. Now we all know how much a Wimbledon title would mean to Roddick. And that, after Federer, is the main impediment to his quest.

Job No. 1 for Roddick: Bring the A-game and spirit for that inevitable match-up with a Richard Gasquet, Marcos Baghdatis, or even Ivo Karlovic.

Mardy Fish (7-7, best result: third round): Some pundits are amazed that Fish has never been past the third round at Wimbledon. Count me among them. Granted, Fish has struggled with injury, and he isn't the most nimble guy on the tour. But with that big serve, those "soft" hands, and the history of American players of similar inclination, style-wise, at Wimbledon, you can't help but be disappointed at Fish's record at the All England Club.

As a fan of country music, Fish certainly knows the meaning of that famous refrain, If it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all. . .Fish has lost to Novak Djokovic, Richard Gasquet, Rafael Nadal and Federer, all men who have been to the semifinals or better at Wimbledon. How about that loss to Irakli Labadze, in 2006? Fish had to retire due to injury after the first set. The closest thing he's had to a "bad loss" at Wimbledon was in 2004, when he was bounced by Joachim Johansson—and Johansson was one of the great unrealized talents of our era.

If Fish gets a bit of a break from the gods of the draw, he'll be set up to wipe away many years of disappointment, and he's now mature and fit enough to take full advantage of his opportunities.

102036943 Sam Querrey (2-3, best results: second round): Well, there's nowhere to go but up for Querrey; two of his three previous losses at Wimbledon were to Alejandro Falla (in Sam's first SW19 in 2007) and Juan Carlos Ferrero—who's a better player on grass than some of his other clay-court amigos. But last year, Querrey took down Ivan Ljubicic and Danai Udomchoke before losing a very close five-setter to a player much like himself, Marin Cilic. There's no question that Querrey has been a work in progress on grass, but the advancement is evident.

Given the kind of year Querrey has been having, and his win at Queen's, there's reason to believe he could have an outstanding and highly professional Wimbledon. Besides, he'll be engaging in a little one-upmanship with his pal and doubles partnerJohn Isner, and that's always good motivational fuel. Both American novices are at the Top 20 level, and you can see their confidence growing, almost by the day.

John Isner (0-1, best result: er, none): Isner missed Wimbledon with mono last year, and in his only previous appearance he lost a close four-setter to Ernests Gulbis. Of course, an inordinate number of Isner's losses—as well as his wins—are "close" matches. It tends to work that way with guys who have atomic serves. Even when Isner loses early at a tournament, his ace-count remains right up there, high on the leaderboard, during the final weekend. No doubt about it; Isner's serve will be a terrible weapon next week.

The major questions surrounding Isner, who has so little history on grass (he even pulled out of Eastbourne this week, in order to better prepare for Wimbledon), is how he'll adapt to the relatively low bounces of grass courts. He's 6-9, so even vicious topspin shots tend to sit up, right in his strike zone on clay and slow, gritty hard courts. Whether he'll be up to all the bending, lunging and stretching required on grass will be as important an issue as his first-serve conversion percentage, and his ability to get his racket on enough returns to pressure his opponents.

Those are the four big American guns lining up for Wimbledon. But there are others. Robby Ginepri is in the midst of a resurgence, and his excellent service return is an asset on grass. Michael Russell is a good competitor, ranked just outside the Top 100 and on the cusp of direct entry into the main draw. The USA also has some competent grass-court players in Robert Kendrick and Bobby Reynolds—both of whom have won main-draw matches at Wimbledon, but will probably have to qualify to get in this year's tournament. And there's Jesse Levine and Donald Young. In other words, the USA has a fair number of players who could run interference for their more well-positioned and accomplished peers.

All in all, I'm feeling very good about the USA's chances at Wimbledon; I'm going so far as to predict an American Wimbledon semifinalist not named Roddick.

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