Boys to Men: Querrey, Young, Smyczek and Levine reflect on Kalamazoo

August 6, 2016 09:43 AM

By Jack Han, special from

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For top American juniors, Aug. 5, 2016, marks the beginning of a great adventure. The USTA Boys’ 18s National Tournament, held in Kalamazoo, Mich., each August, is the Holy Grail of junior tennis in the United States. Each year, 192 aspiring collegiate and professional players descend from all corners of the country to do battle over a 10-day span, in an attempt to win a wild card into the main draw of the US Open. caught up with four outstanding Kalamazoo alumni, who recounted their favorite anecdotes from the annual classic.

Querrey: The more things change...

Sam Querrey, the 2005 Boys’ 18s singles finalist, only took part in the tournament once. After losing in three sets to top seed Donald Young, the lanky Californian took his power game to the pro ranks. The most outstanding ATP World Tour player of Kalamazoo's Class of 2005, Querrey's career highlights include reaching No. 17 in the Emirates ATP Rankings in 2011, winning eight ATP World Tour titles and defeating world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon earlier this year.

“It was definitely the biggest tournament of my junior career. Winning gets you a wild card into the US Open, so there is so much on the line. It really feels like a Grand Slam for an American junior player,” said Querrey, who noted that Kalamazoo’s daunting 192-player draw is larger than that of any professional event.

Despite sweeping the 2004 Boys’ 16s singles and doubles titles and entering the 2005 Boys’ 18s tournament seeded second, the Thousand Oaks, Calif., native had not considered going all-in on tennis until his late teens. Ironically, this easygoing attitude helped develop the explosive, free-swinging style which has allowed him to keep pace with the best in the world for a decade and counting.

“Sam kind of came out of nowhere. He was not really a top junior in the 14s and 16s, then all of a sudden, he was one of the best guys out there,” said Tim Smyczek. “Back then, he could really blast people off the court. He plays the exact same way now, except a lot better.”

“My attitude and demeanor have never changed," Querrey said. "But I take it much more seriously now. It’s a career rather than something that I do for fun, which is how I saw it back then. At the same time, I enjoy it more now than when I was younger.

“If I had to give advice to a player competing at Kalamazoo this year, I’d tell him to enjoy the moment. It’s probably the coolest junior tournament out you’ll get to experience. You play in front of thousands of people and it might well be the biggest stage you’ll ever play on, so have fun.”

Young: Unlocking the Potential

A decade ago, Atlanta’s Donald Young was hailed as The Next Great Thing in American tennis. The 2005 and 2006 Boys’ 18s singles champion has worked hard to translate his creative left-handed game to the ATP World Tour ranks, reaching No. 38 in the Emirates ATP Rankings in 2012 and earning more than $3 million in prize money.

“Only a handful of players in every birth year are able to make the Top 100 and enjoy a long pro career,” said Querrey, who noted that most sporting phenoms are held to unreasonably high standards when it comes to their professional futures. “Donald has had a very good career; you’d have to be crazy to say otherwise.”

“It’s a big change from going deep in almost every tournament as a junior to often being ‘one and done’ at the pro level,” said Young, who owns three victories over Top 10 players (Andy Murray, Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych) since turning pro in 2004. “Since winning in Kalamazoo, the main difference in my game is that I’ve gotten stronger. Not just physically but mentally. I’ve become a lot better at handling the different dynamics in the game from 16 to 27 now, though I am still working on my mental game.”

“Life was simple as a junior. I was still living at home, without a lot of responsibilities. Life changes a lot as you become an adult. You become a home owner, you develop relationships," added Young of the off-court challenges associated with choosing tennis as a career. "You have to grow up and become more independent.”

Smyczek: Finding a Way

Milwaukee is by no means a tennis hotbed. But for 2006 Boys’ 18s third-place finisher Tim Smyczek, the city provided the right environment for his sporting ambitions.

“I played a lot of sports growing up,” said Smyczek, the son of a basketball coach. “Tennis is such a one-sided sport that it promotes a lot of imbalances in the body, so I used different sports in order to develop as an athlete.”

While Querrey and Young had already developed pro-ready games at 17, it took some time for Smyczek to find the right tactical mix.

“It took me a long time to figure out what type of player I am. In juniors I really had no idea,” the 5-foot-9 Smyczek said. “Back then, I didn’t play like a small guy, I went for winners a lot more and played more aggressively. That’s why it took me a bit longer to put it together. Some other guys had a better idea of how they want to play tennis early on.

“Now, I give myself the opportunity to use my legs and my speed. If I’m going for winners, I’m taking away from my own strength,” said Smyczek, who reached his career-best ranking of No. 68 last year at the age of 27.

Looking back on his Kalamazoo experience, Smyczek identified a specific turning point: “In 2004, my first year in the 18s, I lost in the fourth round but won the back draw. It was ridiculous, I played something like 10 or 12 matches in the same week. That was pretty cool.

“You see a lot of top juniors who lose and then pull out of the consolation draw. When I was in juniors, I really tried to think about development, so it was important for me to get those extra matches in. That’s what junior tennis should be about, playing a lot of matches and learning how to compete."

“Lots of kids get caught up in the wrong things in juniors. If you think about those things in the pros, it’s going to affect your livelihood. Things such as: ‘He beat me, therefore he is going to be recruited higher.’ Or: ‘Is that agent paying attention to me?’ Most pros have a better idea of what to focus on and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about unproductive things. They focus on developing as a player and doing the right things on the court. Then the results will take care of themselves.”

Levine: Life after tennis

For Jesse Levine, real life is just beginning. The Canadian-born, Florida-raised left-hander played his last competitive match in 2014 and was forced into retirement due to an elbow injury. Since the end of his playing career, Levine has remained close to tennis, working as a talent scout for Nike, starting his broadcasting career with Sportsnet’s Rogers Cup coverage and coaching ATP and WTA players.

“[Even in retirement], I’ll never lose the same competitive spirit I had back then. Whether it’s playing tennis or hockey recreationally now, I don’t like to lose in anything,” said Levine, who reached No. 69 in the Emirates ATP Rankings in 2012.

“I’ve realized how lucky and blessed I have been to have played in that environment,” said Levine, who cites his 6-7(2), 6-1, 6-4 Boys’ 18s semifinal win over Smyczek in 2006 as his best Kalamazoo memory. “Smyczek, Young, Querrey; we had a great group of guys around the same age who really pushed each other. I have a connection with all of them just from playing all the years of juniors and on the ATP World Tour together.”

Like the vast majority of players laying it all on the line in Kalamazoo this August, Levine will end his tennis journey without an ATP World Tour title to his name. However, he believes that success is relative. It is the battles, the friendships and the memories that matter.

“Success for me was just giving everything I got day in and day out, throughout my junior and pro career. Not many people get to say they played tennis as their job; I got to do that for nine years. That's success to me.”