Once believed to be America’s next star, Sam Querrey overcame years of struggle to seize his moment and make U.S. tennis relevant again.
The beauty of the upset is its rarity. It is at the heart of what makes sports something people can romanticize. Seeing the improbable, the inexplicable transpire in a tense competition filled with ups and downs, conflicting feelings of skepticism, and blind hope. They are then rewarded with a huge pay-off allows that allows them to live vicariously through the athletes and experience this feeling of invincibility as well as a sense of unity. It simply transcends the sport, and is why competition is integral in our culture. Fans respect and love excellence, but cannot help but root for an underdog. We watch because we cannot wait to see what will happen next, and sometimes a swerve or two can give us the feeling of a juvenile giddiness that we all need sometimes.
Tennis is not a sport for the fan of the upset. There are not many variables or factors that could determine a match’s outcome. There are two players locked in a battle of wills, physical strength, and endurance, trying their best to out-tough and outplay their opponents with each meticulous motion and breath. A player can break down or falter under pressure, but usually the most conditioned, prepared, skilled, and composed athlete will triumph in this individual sport.
Flash-in-the-pan performances can occur, but not on a big-stage venue like Wimbledon against the No. 1 player in the world, who is in the midst of a dominant 30-major match winning streak while also chasing a historic feat, which if accomplished could cement his place as the greatest tennis player of all time. That is not an upset. That is a movie, and an unbelievable one at that.
Novak Djokovic has been men’s tennis for almost a year. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, cornerstones of the modern game, were afterthoughts during the major season, with the injury bug biting both. This limited the Serb’s competition to Andy Murray, who was unable to thwart Djokovic’s establishment as a bona fide legend when he captured the French Open and completed the Career Grand Slam. Djokovic had a spot in the finals and one hand already on the trophy before the tournament even started.
There is no talk of a tough draw when a player who not only possesses but has also mastered every tool needed to ascend to the top of the sport takes the court. The word “upset” is not uttered, especially when the player on the other side is another underachieving American whose best years, which in his prime was only top 20, are already well behind him. A number next to his name does not legitimize him as a threat to Djokovic’s crown. Nothing should.
Sam Querrey’s victory over Djokovic cannot be celebrated enough, nor can its importance be overstated. Regardless of Mother Nature’s lack of compassion or the rumored health problems of Djokovic, the No. 28 seed and world No. 41 defied logic and mounted the most incredible win in the history of tennis, completing a task that should put him in the same conversation as David versus Goliath. Goliath didn’t have a weapon. Djokovic did, and a man who supposedly carried a lesser sword, one with the mark of American disappointment, defeated him. There is not enough hyperbole in the world to express the magnitude of Querrey’s conquest.
The 29-year-old native from San Francisco, California, edged Djokovic in the opening set and then applied mounds of pressure when he decimated the despondent defending champ in the second set, 6-1. Then the rain plagued the All-England Club like it has all week and halted Querrey’s momentum. The weather became a wild card, with there being the uncertainty of who would benefit most. Djokovic was afforded the opportunity to regroup, while Querrey was forced to sit on his lead all night, knowing how hard it would be to maintain his level of play. Play resumed Saturday, and everyone’s expectations seemed to come to fruition as the beast awakened.
Djokovic won the third set, but Querrey’s unreturnable first serve kept him in the set, which remained on serve at 4-4. The best in the world then, finally, after squandering 12 break points, seized control and looked to close out the set. This has happened before, most recently to Murray, who erased his own two-set deficit against veteran Radek Stepanek in the first round of the French Open.
The greats sometimes face adversity, but what makes them a member of the elite is their inherent ability to raise their game a notch when the walls are caving in. Djokovic’s time to reignite came and quickly went after a lack of challenges and aggressive play by Querrey caused the tide to quickly turn back again. Many began to believe. There is a certain point where a fluke starts to look legitimate, and in this moment for Querrey and American tennis as a whole, it was not only in reach, but on the fingertips.
Rain persisted in what was a slug fest that failed to really hit its stride in terms of match flow. None of that mattered, though. The tension was evident in the whole arena, with the entire men’s draw feeling the implications of the match. Querrey hung around, let Djokovic beat himself on occasion, used his serve to prevent his opponent from gaining significant momentum, and by the time a competitive fourth-set tiebreak reached full-swing, he was on the brink from making history by denying it. Djokovic uncharacteristically hit a forehand wide, like he did throughout the match, and made Querrey a household name.
But this is not about Querrey’s career going forward or if the victory will equate to a rebirth and the realization of the untapped potential that was thought to be emptied long ago. Truthfully, Querrey’s moment was likely just that, a one-hit wonder. But what’s so bad about that? He has restored hope, and probably a great deal of American interest in a sport that was supposed to be too soft for those who crave bone-crushing tackles and deafening slam dunks. Witnessing Querrey gradually slay the giant, weakening him with each of his 31 thunderous aces, was not boring, but rather invigorating. More importantly for those fortunate enough to soak all of the this-cannot-be-happening drama, and the many that will experience it through highlights, it instilled national pride and reminded many that this sport used to be ours.
Tennis and American star power are synonymous. The two could not exist without one another. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are the epitomes of excellence and class, something not to be taken for granted, but having a top talent hail from the United States elevates the game. Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe made tennis a theater. The prowess they both displayed, combined with the palpable contempt and ruthlessness they both showed for each other and their opponents, made their matches reminiscent of an afternoon in the Colosseum. It was edgy, featured exceptional skill, and a had a flavor of home. We enjoy the satisfaction that comes with knowing that in the whole world, our boys are the best. It is, for whatever reason, supposed to be some sort of reflection of the collective masses, and an outlet for people to express pride that maybe the perfect therapy they need in that moment.
The game has improved as rackets have enhanced ball-striking ability, players have models of fitness, and competition has become more top-heavy than ever with three revolutionary players currently active. The nationalism, however, has dissipated, and as a result, tennis has for many reverted back to being too much of a finesse game. Its presence on sports radio talk shows is virtually nonexistent. It is all about the individual, so it is easier for people to fall in love with an American. Federer exudes elegance, and Nadal has charm, but the American fan often overlooks them because the color of the flag is what will often get them to keep the channel on. Having an American star does not only increase the popularity of tennis on the home front, but it will also broaden their horizons to the players that we in the minority already know and appreciate.
There have been upsets before. Federer has lost early in Wimbledon, and Nadal has lost in the French. It happens, but because the gap between Djokovic and the top five was so wide, let alone the rest of the field, coupled with Querrey’s American heritage, this match will forever be a part of sports folklore. Querrey will probably not win the tournament. Heck, he may not even reach the quarterfinals, but he has made a lasting impression, and at least for the moment has excited Americans about tennis again, which should carry over into the U.S. Open and, hopefully, beyond. Thank you, Sam.
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