If the children stand on their toes, they can just about look Sam Querrey in the elbow. They have followed him in from the tennis court, talking without pause, challenging him to games of ping-pong, asking him about his racket, his doubles partner, his childhood. It is a cold, blustery, iron-gray day. The children are about to drink hot chocolate in the pro shop of Las Vegas’ Darling Tennis Center, and they would like Querrey to drink with them. They follow him in from the courts, through the pro shop, through a door marked “employees only.”
“You guys go over there,” he says. “I’ll be there in just a minute.”
The cloud of children migrates to the tower of empty cups on the pro shop counter. They line up, wait their turn. And suddenly, there at the back of the line, is Querrey, the biggest kid of all.
Querrey, 23, enters this month’s Australian Open (Jan. 17-30) as the No. 18 tennis player in the world. He has won six titles and nearly $3 million on the pro tour. He is ranked third among Americans, and, along with his friend and doubles partner, 19th-ranked John Isner, he is seen by many as the future of elite U.S. tennis. He is 6 feet 6 inches tall. His first serve regularly exceeds 125 mph. And, although he only lived in the Las Vegas Valley from ages 7-10, he has become a hometown hero for the Southern Nevada tennis community.
The city of Las Vegas opened the Amanda and Stacy Darling Memorial Tennis Center in the northwest part of the Valley in 2005. The center has 23 courts, including a 3,000-seat stadium court. Las Vegas has had few such meeting places for its tennis players since the late-1970s heyday of the long-departed Cambridge Racquet Club, a hangar-like indoor joint with 10 courts where one could occasionally spy a young Andre Agassi dismantling some unsuspecting schmoe. The Darling Tennis Center, though, was something more: a sprawling, sun-splashed outdoor facility like the ones that have for decades spawned nationally ranked juniors in California. It became a United States Tennis Association Regional Training Center, with an impressive roster of teaching pros, and from 2006-2008 the center hosted an annual ATP Tour event, the Tennis Channel Open, which Querrey won in 2008. By 2010, though, the city, hit hard by the recession and deep in debt, was finding it difficult to continue operating the center.
Just when it looked like Las Vegas tennis could lose the best thing it ever had, along came Querrey, his parents, Mike and Chris, and longtime local tennis supporters Jeff and Sandy Foley. In August, the Querreys and Foleys signed on to run the center for the city. The DTC would be privately managed while remaining publicly owned and universally accessible; the city estimated that the new arrangement would save $200,000 a year.
The Querreys and Foleys immediately began plunging their energy into the project. Sandy Foley returned to her former position as the center’s director, Jeff Foley is the head teaching pro, and you’re likely to find Querrey’s mom, Chris, running the front desk. In November, the new team held a grand reopening; Sam Querrey was there to conduct youth and adult clinics and compete in an afternoon pro-am doubles tournament, partnering with crooner Clint Holmes.
It was a pleasant stopover for Querrey in the town that started his tennis career. When Querrey was 7, his family moved to Henderson from the San Francisco Bay Area, and he began showing up for weekly tennis clinics at the Green Valley Athletic Club. Three years later, Mike Querrey’s work took the family to Thousand Oaks, Calif., where Sam played soccer, football, basketball, baseball, golf and, while catching his breath, a bit of tennis.
By the time he was 14, Querrey realized he had something special on the tennis court. During his years at Thousand Oaks High School, he traveled nationally and globally, missing a few days of school now and then for, say, the Junior French Open. Initially he planned to go to USC, but that big serve had a mind of its own, and Querrey wound up following it straight to the pro tour. He quickly became a fan favorite with his power game, his smile and a personal rooting section of pals who called themselves the Samurai. Soon he was starring in quirky commercials on the Tennis Channel, apparently unburdened by the dreaded mantle of the Next Big Thing.
Querrey’s parents moved back to Las Vegas last year, and, for a young man living out of his racket bag, the Valley has become a welcome, if infrequent, refuge. He has maintained the childhood friendships he built more than a decade ago, and when he comes to Las Vegas, he’s less likely to hit the clubs than to get together with old friends. On a recent visit, the charismatic athlete and his band of merry men spent an evening making gingerbread houses.
The next day, he stood among the hot chocolate-chugging kids at the Darling Tennis Center in a brand-new white K-Swiss warmup jacket, fielding questions, wisecracking and signing the occasional autograph. Across the back of Querrey’s jacket, a girl had scrawled her name in thick black Sharpie script.
“Hey,” said one of the adults, “that was pretty nice of you to give Sam your autograph.”
“Well,” she said, “he gave me his.”