Southern California has sported many a tennis player who were pretty good. Fellows named Big Jack Kramer, Pistol Pete Sampras, Jimbo Connors, Hustling Bobby Riggs, plus a Pancho or two. But of late, the alpha male of Southland tennis is a feared gunslinger from Thousand Oaks. A guy they call Big Sam – that would be 6’ 6” Sam Querrey.
The 31-year-old, who reached the 2017 Wimbledon semis and won the ATP’s LA Open for the last three years the ATP tourney was played. And, on December 22, he maintained his top-of-the-heap SoCal dominance when he beat France’sThomas Laurent 6-3, 6-4 to capture the $30,000 California Championships.
En route to the title, Querrey beat a young UCLA product, Gage Brymer, 23, Stanford’s resurgent Bradley Klahn, who’s 28 and ranked No. 79, and a player who has been a fish out of the water for awhile. In other words, Sam downed former No. 1 American Mardy Fish, who’s been retired for three years.
The true innovation of the California Championships, the special twist that gave it unusual appeal, was using the UTR Ranking system powered by Oracle, and having a reverse feed-in system and staggered entry draw format which leveled the field and enabled players of all ages and divergent skills to face each other. Essentially, it allowed players to see exactly how they stack up against some of the best in the world. Okay, for years you’ve dominated at your club, or you’ve been a big man on campus, but how would you do at Wimbledon?
Players from ages 13 to 57, with UTR rankings from 2.96 to 15.46, descended on the celebrated Jack Kramer Club in lovely Rolling Hills Estates just south of LA beginning on December 15th.
The Championships began with an array of matches using a shortened format. It was a fast-firing survival of the fittest between players who’d come from as far as Britain and Florida. On day one, Robert Calendar broke out and won six short-set matches. Then former UCLA No. 1, Mike Mkrtchian, who is now a law student, won seven matches over two days and proved to be loudest “C’mon”-er in the county.
“This Championsip is so inspiring and motivational,” noted Mkrtchian. “I wanted to test myself against the top pros and see where I am or where I could have been if I’d decided to play the ATP Tour rather than go to law school.”
Some referred to the gathering as “Tarango’s Gold.” After all, the tourney was the creation of Jeff Tarango, the former ATP player who was a French Open doubles finalist, tournament supervisor Jeff Bearup and Stephen Amritaj from the great Indian-American tennis and business clan.
The Kramer Club happening, which drew thousands of fans, more than 40,000 Facebook viewers and an array of sponsors, including Head Rackets and Tennis Warehouse, among others, was far more than a tournament.
It drew legends. There was two-time US Open winner Tracy Austin, who famously had gone from building sand castles in the club’s sandbox to lifting Grand Slam trophies. On hand were commentators like Paul Annacone, former and current players including Brian Teacher, Kim Po and Christina McHale, considerable coaches like David Nankin and college mentors like UCLA’s Billy Martin and USC’s Peter Smith, who tracked their players and wannabe prospects.
Despite problematic weather, the club was alive with rock and holiday music and a fun celebrity exhibition with Tarrango, Gavin Rossdale, Jon Lovitz, Steve Weissman and the finest Hungarian player you may not have heard of – Sandor Nozaly.
In the end, the tourney proved that cream rises to the top. Top-seeded Querrey prevailed and then headed off to Australia to start another year of triumphs and tears.
Speaking of tears, as a junior, Tarrango famously brought eight-year-old Andre Agassi to tears. But 40 years later, there were nothing but cheers. Tarango’s gold – the most innovative tourney of the year – was a triumph.