Sam’s club rocking tennis tour
WESTWOOD, Calif. – Sam Querrey, one of the most promising young tennis players in America, counts among his weapons a giant first serve, a powerful forehand and, depending on one’s perspective, the most entertaining or most obnoxious cheering section in the sport.
These loud, bare-chested Querrey devotees call themselves “Samurai.”
But on Saturday at the L.A. Tennis Open, the top-seeded player in the tournament called them out.
“Those guys just showed they have no class,” Tommy Haas of Germany said of the group of fans after he lost to Querrey in the semifinals. “It’s up to Sam to take control of the situation if he wants to.”
So as Querrey prepared to face Carsten Ball here Sunday in the finals, the suspense went beyond the outcome of the match. Could Querrey, 21, control the Samurai – a group started by his former classmates at Thousand Oaks High School in Southern California – and would he even try?
The club members wear Samurai headbands, Samurai pants and body paint that spells out – what else? – “SAMURAI.” Armed with sturdy vocal cords and a bongo, they are as loud as the 6-foot-6 Querrey is tall. In some cases, they’re as well known as Querrey, who entered the tournament here ranked No. 32 in the world and last year pushed Rafael Nadal four sets – winning the second and forcing a tiebreaker in the third – before losing the fourth-round match at the U.S. Open.
Two weeks ago, for example, tournament officials at an ATP stop in Indianapolis flew out five members of the Samurai to help enliven the event. Querrey’s posse passed out more than 400 Samurai headbands and dozens of T-shirts.
“I probably signed 20 autographs, at least,” said Sean Henson, 18 and a recent graduate of Thousand Oaks High School. “Little kids were obsessed with us. It was bizarre.”
Henson is among those who have cheered for Querrey – and occasionally jeered Querrey’s opponents – in places such as Las Vegas, New York, Indianapolis, Indian Wells, Calif., and here on UCLA’s campus, where the phenomenon continued this past week.
In fact, here is where it all started, innocently enough, back in 2006.
Well, maybe not so innocently.
At the 2006 L.A. Tennis Open, eight of Querrey’s high school classmates showed up for his first-round match against Vince Spadea with body paint that spelled out “SAMS CLUB.” They were determined to be seen – and heard. And so they were, being their now-typically loud, boisterous selves throughout the match.
“Spadea took a swing at a plant, he was so upset,” Dan Farrugia, 20 and one of the group’s ringleaders, recalled with a grin.
They liked the rise they got out of Spadea more than they liked their name. So the next day they showed up with body paint that spelled out SAMURAI, channeled their warrior spirit and later added the headbands and Samurai pants (ordered from Thailand at $12 a pair) that has helped spawn other cheering squads.
In Indianapolis, for example, Rajeev Ram showed up for a match against Querrey with supporters that dubbed themselves the “EntouRaj.” And in Querrey’s quarterfinal match this past week against Dudi Sela of Israel, Sela had backers calling themselves “The Hebrew Hammer.”
The EntouRaj and The Hebrew Hammer were no match for the Samurai, and Querrey dispatched Ram and Sela in straight sets while becoming the first American to reach the finals of three straight ATP tournaments since Andy Roddick did it in 2004.
Volume alone does not define Querrey’s personal rooting section. Improvisation is equally important.
When only three could make it to Flushing Meadows, N.Y., for Querrey’s match against Rafael Nadal last year, they settled for spelling out “SAM.” When five flew to the tournament in Indianapolis, they spelled out “GO SAM” and, while passing out headbands, drew a quizzical look.
“What’s MO GAS?” a spectator asked.
The Samurai members had fallen out of alignment, and fell into a new cheer. From that point on, every time Querrey served an ace, they yelled out, “MO GAS!”
Querrey brings the gas, all right, his serve topping out at 140 mph.
This past week, Querrey brought the gas and the Samurai brought extra bodies, enabling them to spell THE SAMURAI and extend their creativity. Case in point: During Querrey’s second-round match against Ryan Sweeting, when Sweeting swatted a ball 20 rows into the grandstand seats in frustration, the Samurai members quickly shuffled positions and spelled out “AMATEURISH.”
They directed the “tsk tsks” at Sweeting. But the “tsk tsks” Haas directed their way made one wonder what was about to transpire Sunday when a dozen shirtless men and 10 women (yes, wearing shirts) arrived.
Querrey and Ball emerged from a tunnel, into the stadium and, as always, the Samurai were on their feet and ready.
Three games into the match, a security guard approached.
“We’re getting complaints from the people behind you,” he said. “You’re going to have to sit down.”
One annoyed Samurai shot back, “There are plenty of seats open. Can’t they move?”
The group sat, but not for long. Suddenly they rose to their feet and marched across the upper concourse to an open section of seats where they would obstruct no fans. A middle-aged man bounded over.
“Do you need another letter?” he asked.
Despite what some might think, they did not need an S on the end of Samurai.
“Samurai is plural,” noted Farrugia, who said he’s a junior at Cornell and in charge of ensuring no stray S’s try to line up at the end of SAMURAI.
One of the Samurai, who range in age between 17 and 23, eyed the middle-aged guy, then blurted out, “Get in here, man. Take off your shirt.”
With that, the middle-aged guy did just that, and at the appropriate time – if there is such thing as an appropriate time – chanted “Sam-Sam-Sam!”
When Querrey had a chance to break serve, the group erupted, “Break-Break-Break!”
After Ball faulted on a first serve during the first set, one of the Samurai yelled, “Jump on the second, Sammy!”
Spectators turned in disapproval.
Querrey turned around, looked at the Samurai.
He held an index finger to his lips.
Up the concrete steps strode a security guard.
He informed the Samurai they were strictly prohibited from saying anything while a player was serving or preparing to serve.
The group members listened. It was quiet enough to hear a tennis ball drop.
“The rest of the time,” the security guard said, “get wild and crazy. Do what you do.”
As if they needed any encouragement.
They did what they do, shouting “MO GAS” after Querrey’s aces, chanting “Break-break-break” when Querrey had a chance to break serve, and even applauding Ball’s best shots. He made plenty of good ones, too, squaring the match at one set apiece and forcing a decisive third set.
The Samurai broke out the bongo drum rather than their signature gong, like the one Chuck Barris used on “The Gong Show.”
“I left it in Las Vegas,” explained Wes Barrows, a senior at UNLV and another founding member of the Samurai. “We needed to upgrade anyway.”
The match ended as it began, with raucous chants of “Sam!”
After match point, when Querrey finished off Ball and clinched this tournament’s championship, the player directed a triumphant fist toward his cheering squad and hit a tennis ball into the section where they stood and cheered.
During the trophy presentation, culminating a tournament won in past years by the likes of John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras, Querrey took a first-of-its kind photo. Holding the trophy, he posed with the bare-chested men in Samurai bandanas. But the suspense was not over.
Would Ball, like Haas, use the postmatch press conference to chide the Samurai?
He said he could understand why they’d get under certain players’ skin. But he had no complaints.
“If they’re rooting against me, I try not to pay much attention to it,” he said. “It didn’t really bother me too much.”
A few minutes later, Querrey arrived at the interview room and paid tribute to the Samurai.
“When it’s 4-all, 5-all, or deuce, or if you’re down break point, they really get me fired up and they get me going,” he said. “They pulled me through a lot of matches this week.”
He shrugged off mention of Haas’ criticism.
“I think they’re fun,” Querrey said. “I mean, they clap for the opponent when they’re hitting good shots. They’re not out of control. I think if you had more people like that, tennis would be a more popular sport.”
Soon it was time for Querrey to leave, he and his Samurai having won the day’s battle.