By Steve Galluzzo, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
LOS ANGELES -- At the entrance to the Los Angeles Tennis Center on the campus of UCLA is a narrow path leading down to stadium court called the "Walk of Fame." Giant posters of past champions line the fences and the pictures tell all there is to know about the Farmers Classic, the fourth event in the Emirates Airline US Open Series.
Outside of the four major championships that comprise the sport's Grand Slam, no tournament is as steeped in tradition as the Farmers Classic, being played for the 86th time this week. On Sunday, another name will be added to the list of winners and one man eager to join it again is second-seeded Sam Querrey, who served nine aces in Wednesday's 6-2, 6-2 second-round victory over Igor Sijsling of the Netherlands.
"Playing in front of all my friends and family is what makes it so special," said Querrey, who is trying to become the seventh three-time champion, a fraternity that consists of Fred Perry, Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Vic Seixas, Pancho Gonzalez and Arthur Ashe. Incredibly, Gonzalez captured titles 22 years apart, winning his first as a 21-year-old in 1949 then returning to take the 1969 and 1971 crowns.
"I would be the lowest guy in that group, but it would be great to mentioned with guys like that," added Querrey, currently ranked No. 55, who missed last year's Farmers Classic after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder. "This is one of my favorite courts to play on. If I serve well and hit my forehand like I have been I think it's my tournament to win."
An American has reached the singles final every year since 2007 but only three are still alive heading into play Thursday.
Many past champions have hailed from Southern California, including Kramer, who won it three times in five years in the 1940s. Querrey, the 2009 and 2010 winner, is from Thousand Oaks. Bob and Mike Bryan from Camarillo are the doubles kings, winning their unprecedented sixth crown in 2010. They skipped the Farmers Classic this summer to compete in the London Olympics, but the brothers have often referred to the event as their "home turf." Pete Sampras, who was raised in Rancho Palos Verdes, won two singles titles in the 1990s. 2011 finalist Mardy Fish lives up the road in Beverly Hills.
"Growing up in Southern California and watching some of the all-time greats play here makes this a tournament I definitely want to win someday," added reigning NCAA singles champion Steve Johnson, a native of Orange, California, who lost his first round match Tuesday to Igor Sijsling of the Netherlands. "It would mean a lot to me because its right in my backyard."
Originally titled the Pacific Southwest Championships, it was played at the Los Angeles Tennis Club through 1974. Ten-time Grand Slam winner Bill Tilden became the first singles champion in 1927, defeating fellow American Francis Hunter 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 in the finals. In 1945, Frank Parker became L.A.'s first four-time winner -- a feat equaled by Roy Emerson in 1967, Jimmy Connors in 1984 and Andre Agassi in 2005.
"Rocket" Rod Laver became the first champion in the Open era in 1968 when he beat fellow Australian Ken Rosewall and Laver won again two years later against yet another countryman, John Newcombe.
"I started playing in Los Angeles as a junior so I had a long history with that tournament," Laver once said. "I always enjoyed playing at the L.A. Tennis Club. So many celebrities would come out to watch the matches. It was like a who’s who among Hollywood stars."
Over the years the tournament has had numerous name, corporate sponsor and venue changes, yet it remains the longest-running annual professional sporting event in Los Angeles. It included a women’s draw through 1974 when Linda Lewis won the ladies title. The tournament moved indoors to UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion in 1975 and relocated to Los Caballeros Racquet Club in Fountain Valley in 1980 before returning to the Los Angeles Tennis Club in 1981. For the last 27 years it has been held at the Los Angeles Tennis Center and it has grown into one of the most attractive events of the hard court season.
"I like coming here," said third-seeded Argentinian Leonardo Mayer, who eliminated Italy's Flavio Cipolla 6-2, 4-0 (retired) in the second round Wednesday. One of only two South Americans in the 28-player singles field, Mayer is no stranger to Los Angeles, having reached the semifinals in 2009. "This is my third time here. The weather and the crowd are great."
Americans won the tournament every year from 1971-87, including three two-time champions--Stan Smith (1972, 1977), Gene Mayer (1980, 1983) and John McEnroe (1981, 1986). Players representing 10 foreign countries have won singles titles in Los Angeles, including six of the last nine winners. That trend may continue, as five of the six remaining seeds are from overseas. On Thursday, top-seeded Benoit Paire of France, ranked No. 47, faces American Michael Russell while No. 4 Nicolas Mahut of France, No. 5 Xavier Malisse from Belgium and No. 6 Marinko Matosevic of Australia are also in action.
Querrey, however, wants to return the Farmers Classic to its home country. Wednesday's win leveled his match record to 15-15 this year and the 24-year-old will meet either Malisse or Australian Matthew Ebden in the quarterfinals Friday.
"The way I look at it, this would be three in a row for me because I was injured last year and couldn't defend my title," he said. "I feel great right now and I'm playing at a Top-20 level. It's going to be tough no matter who I play, but I have a lot of confidence and I'll have the crowd on my side."
Querrey and Johnson are playing doubles together Thursday against fourth-seeded Ebden and Dominic Inglot of Great Britain in a first-round match. Johnson led the University of Southern California to a fourth straight NCAA team title in the spring and is just getting his feet wet as a full-timer on the ATP World Tour, but Querrey believes he has the potential to become a top player.
"Steve has the game and did a lot of winning in college so that should give him confidence," Querrey said. "The biggest difference now is that if you're off a little these guys will take advantage of it, but I think Steve's going to do just fine."