Last week in Atlanta provided a painful but sharp snapshot of the state of things at the elite level of U.S. professional tennis. Sam Querrey, who at 6-foot-6 had nearly a full foot of height advantage on 5-foot-9 Dudi Sela, was beaten comprehensively by the Israeli, 6-2, 6-4.
Sela went on to scamper and grind his way to the final. There he ran afoul of the other half of that brace of players that was expected to take over leadership of U.S. tennis from Andy Roddick. That was Querrey’s colleague, John Isner. Sela would kill just one giant that week; Isner beat him comfortably to win the ninth title of his career.
We’ve seen time and again that in tennis, size actually doesn’t matter. Apparently, it also applies to the “size” of a nation. We Americans can ruefully attest to that as we track the exploits of those two men from tiny Switzerland, all-time Grand Slam singles champ Roger Federer and his former wingman turned frenemy, Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka.
All that just adds context and underscores how disappointing it has been for fans of U.S. tennis to see the twin towers Isner and Querrey so often swaying and crumbling. The future looked a lot brighter back in 2010, when Isner and Querrey made a promising debut as a brace of potential champions despite having been beaten in a Davis Cup tie on red clay by Novak Djokovic and his fellow Serbs.
In 2010 it even looked as if Querrey could end up the more productive player. He won four titles that year, including one on red clay, in which he beat his pal Isner for the title in a close match. In another final, in Los Angeles, he took down Andy Murray. Querrey hit a career high ranking of No. 17 on the strength of those results, in the first month of 2011.
But those high hopes have been pretty thoroughly wrecked, even if Isner has basically maintained his level after hitting a career high ranking of No. 9. Tellingly, he reached that benchmark just a few months after Querrey maxed out. It appeared at that point that the friends might make even each inspire each other to greater heights through a friendly rivalry. But those hopes were gradually dashed.
Querrey has gradually slip-slid away. It hasn’t been easy for the mellow California native who was down — or is it back up? — to No. 63 in the aftermath of Atlanta.
Querrey has had some hard luck, including an episode that nearly ended his career. In 2009 in Bangkok, a glass-top table he was sitting on shattered underneath him. Querrey’s right arm was sliced open and the glass just missed destroying nerves that control movements in the right, racquet arm and hand.
Querrey also missed three months in 2011, following surgery on his right elbow. He’s had some decent results in the interim, but each time he seemed to take step forward he immediately took two back. The latest episode was an unexpected break-up with a former fiancée in the summer of 2013. Depressed and disinterested in tennis, Querrey admitted that he merely went through the motions.
“I didn't have the same energy and desire to be out there, the effort wasn’t 100 percent," Querrey told USTA.com. “It was a tough year personally because I was engaged and it ended at beginning of the summer. It was difficult for the five to six months.”
Querrey has been comparably frank about his emotional ups and downs in the past. In fact, in his breakout year of 2010 he seemed poised to have a big French Open. Instead, he lost in the first round to fellow countryman Robby Ginepri, and found himself accused of tanking.
"Mentally not there,” Querrey admitted during a frank post-match press conference. “I don't know. I just need to be in a better mood or just need to enjoy the competition and enjoy being out there more than I do."
That was not the last time we’d see the “soft” side of Sam Querrey. But what are you going to do, berate him for not being a Jimmy Connors or even a David Ferrer? Querrey is a big guy but in many ways he’s also been big kid — he’s been slow to mature, buffeted by the shifting winds of maturity. And if you saw how graciously he handled defeat in that bitterly close Wimbledon clash with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, you can’t help but like Querrey.
At the same time, you have to wonder in dismay if he’ll ever have the requisite steel to challenge for Grand Slam or even Masters titles. He may still look and act youthful, but at 26 he ought to be at or near the peak of his physical powers. He’s earned seven career titles, but none since he won the now defunct Los Angeles event in 2012.
Isner is a different story. He’s been more reliable as well as more fortunate than Querrey. Yet the most interesting aspect of Isner’s career may be his record at the major event where he’s thought to have his best chance to win, Wimbledon.
Isner blazed his way into the history books — and focused the eyes of the world on Wimbledon — when he and Nicolas Mahut played the longest match in recorded tennis history (Isner won,70-68 in the fifth). Yet Isner’s career singles record at the tournament where his atomic serve poses the greatest threat is 5-6. It’s amazing, but Isner has never won more than two matches in a row at Wimbledon.
Fans who pay attention know that Isner’s surprisingly poor showing at Wimbledon, as well most of his losses on other surfaces, owe to his relatively poor return game. Opponents know that if they just hang around long enough, they might get that critical opportunity in a regular game, or the inevitable tiebreaker, unless Isner serves near flawlessly.
But despite his shortcomings, Isner has established himself consistently in the second rank of players, and there’s a chance that at some unexpected moment everything will fall into place and he will serve his way to a great, career-capping win. At 29, he has less time than Querrey to figure it out, or to just plain get lucky. Isner is off to a good start on his beloved U.S. hard-court circuit again this year, and Querrey still has some weeks to get his game in order for the U.S. Open.
As for the whole “twin towers” thing and that friendly rivalry that would lead both players to greater heights? Well, it seems a quaint idea now — if a good one at the time.