By Bruce Jenkins
April 13, 2010

That was some nice work by Sam Querrey in Houston over the weekend. He fought back the forces of evil and undoubtedly heard from countless well-wishers in the tennis community. If only he'd finished the job.

Perhaps exhausted by the physical and emotional toll of his three-set semifinal victory over Wayne Odesnik, Querrey lost a final he should have won against a 30-year-old Argentine, Juan Ignacio Chela, playing out the string of a modestly successful career. By the end of Sunday's third set, Querrey's game was a messy swirl of tentative stabs and reckless rips, to the point where he couldn't properly explain what happened.

All things considered, though, Querrey gets a pass for Sunday. It was Saturday's match that really counted. Querrey wasn't just representing himself, but the entire ATP tour, against an enigmatic loner who had no right being on the court.

You've undoubtedly followed the saga of Odesnik, who pleaded guilty March 26 to importing eight vials of human growth hormone into Australia at the beginning of the year. With an investigation in progress by the International Tennis Federation, Odesnik has been allowed to continue playing -- but "due process" simply doesn't fly in this case. Odesnik just needs to go away, for the sake of the tour, the sport's integrity and his own crumbling reputation.

Once his fellow players got word that Odesnik was competing in the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships, they could hardly believe it. Andy Roddick and James Blake, among others, already were on record with their expressed outrage. Then Mardy Fish chimed in: "There's no room for him. There is no gray area. He pleaded guilty. Any points and money he wins are going to be gone, anyway (once a suspension comes down). He's a pretty good clay-court player, but what you don't know now is if any of that is real." Fish also said that any self-respecting player would "take himself out" rather than continue competing.

If the news had come down in June, Odesnik likely would have disappeared. But this is the onset of the clay-court season, when he tends to shine. It's an odd coincidence that Houston -- specifically the River Oaks Country Club, where last week's tournament was played -- happens to be his favorite venue in the world. He has reached only three tour-event semifinals in his life, and all of them have been at River Oaks, the past three years. So you can understand, in a way, why he'd want to compete. Even if the ITF stripped him of money and rankings, he'd still be able to prove his worth as a player.

Imagine what it's like to have virtually an entire tour against you. Odesnik's family moved from South Africa to Florida when he was three years old, and he probably feels quite homeless these days. Once Querrey learned he'd be playing Odesnik in the final, he proclaimed, "I refuse to lose to that guy."

He quite nearly did. In the charming and intimate River Oaks setting, inside a stadium nearly 80 years old with a surface of red clay imported from Vermont, Querrey found himself in a maddening struggle against a classic clay-court grinder. (I had a chance to watch the match on the Tennis Channel, and here's some advice to devoted fans of the sport: If you don't have DirecTV, make the move. Between the Tennis Channel and a number of Fox Sports outlets, I've been able to watch every important match of recent weeks, including Indian Wells, Key Biscayne and Houston.)

Querrey kept his words in check, but he was steamed, wanting not just to beat Odesnik, but to embarrass him. After a satisfying first set, Querrey found himself sitting alone at the break while Odesnik, in one of those pathetic tactical maneuvers used by far too many players these days, took a "bathroom break." Worse yet, Odesnik spent most of the second set (which he won, 6-1) fussing and stalling, particularly between serves. That takes some nerve. Here's a guy who's lucky to even be on the court, and now he's Gary Gamesmanship.

Querrey pretty much tanked that set. "He's mentally throwing it away," said analyst Jimmy Arias, who worked the match with Ted Robinson. "He has mentally lost it in his mind." As the telecast returned from a commercial at 4-1, on-court commentator Ashley Fisher revealed having heard Querrey mutter under his breath, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy. He shouldn't even be in the tournament."

The third set progressed through a sequence of grim exchanges, and Querrey wasn't hiding his disdain. When Odesnik moved toward the net to question an "out" call on one of his groundstrokes, Querrey walked to the ball mark, drew a gigantic circle around it with his racket and wisecracked, "It was only out a good four inches." At another stage, Querrey became so incensed by his erratic first serve, he unleashed a shocking, 131-mph second serve that went in for an ace. He also drilled a forehand passing shot, some 10 feet long, that was obviously aimed for Odesnik's noggin.

The crowd seemed to have no sense of the underlying drama, earnestly applauding the best moments of both men. Dale Robertson, the well-traveled columnist and tennis maven of the Houston Chronicle, later wrote on Twitter, "Now, explain something to me. Why was anybody cheering for Odesnik?"

It was a dreadful match, in truth, until the very end, when the two suddenly engaged in a long, riveting point, won by Odesnik with a brilliant drop-shot winner from just inside the baseline. That allowed him to hold serve for 5-5, but a couple of groundstroke errors made it easy for Querrey to clinch the match with a service break. The big man had just reached his first-ever clay-court final, and it's too bad that Fisher so badly mishandled the postmatch interview. There are ways to finesse a difficult question, but he didn't even address the Odesnik-as-villain matter, leaving many viewers feeling short-changed.

The thing about Querrey is that, despite his height and booming serves, he's just not that menacing. He has a remarkably awful collection of shirts and shorts, so he invariably looks the rube out there. The final proved, as well, that he's not in shape. Chela referred to Querrey's "fatigue" as the reason behind his measured, deliberate tactics, and Querrey didn't make much sense afterward when he said, "I learned that I need to take more chances and hit the ball much bigger on the big points." In fact, he went all-out on most of his forehands (73 unforced errors overall), and he was scattering the ball all over southeast Texas over the last few games.

Then again, Querrey is just 22 years old, with a lot of talent and potential. It wasn't so much about aesthetics in this tournament, but that he quite willingly played the sheriff. For his friends and fellow players around the world, it was drinks on the house.

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