Riding A Roller Coaster
US Open 2008
by Joel Drucker|
As a player who so often produces his best tennis when riding a wave of emotion, it’s little wonder that James Blake has endured a career of extremes. What’s next for this Top 10 star?
In conversation, James Blake is rational, thoughtful and courteous. Though he's prone to speak at breakneck speeds, it's virtually impossible to imagine Blake addressing anyone in an ungracious manner. But during the event he considers the most important Grand Slam, the American appreciates New York's loud and intrusive nature. He says, "I love the chaos, love the ticket requests, the fans going nuts. I accept it and I take it all in."
The US Open personifies James Blake's paradoxical qualities. On the court, no place more than Flushing Meadows has showcased the incredible volatility of Blake's tennis game. The player who still attests to being a fan first – "to step on Ashe Stadium and compete, every time it still gives me goose bumps" – has taken part in many of the 21st century's most engaging matches over the course of compiling a 16-7 US Open record. They have been rough-and-tumble battles marked by Blake's distinctive playing style.
ESPN analyst Darren Cahill was in the coach's box during two US Open matches that vividly demonstrated Blake's capacity for drama and the exceptional strides he's made in his game. The first came in 2001, when Blake took a two sets to one lead over Cahill's charge, Lleyton Hewitt, before running out of gas and going down 6-0 in the fifth. Four years later, Blake's fitness and strokes had improved significantly. In the third round, he toppled second seed Rafael Nadal in a superb demonstration of attacking tennis. Then in the quarterfinals, Blake played the finest match in recent US Open history, going up two sets to love versus Cahill's more recent client, Andre Agassi, before losing this scintillating quarterfinal in a fifth-set tie-break.
According to Cahill, "James has got some incredible strengths. His straight-line speed is incredible. His first two steps and his acceleration are unbelievable. He has great stopping speed, is one of the game's best second serve returners and most of all, he's got a truly explosive forehand."
Blake's prowess has taken him to two US Open quarterfinals, in 2005 and '06. A year ago, he finally won the first five-setter of his career, a rite of passage earned versus an extremely rough customer, Fabrice Santoro. But alas, in the next round Blake lost a heartbreaking fifth-set tie-break to Tommy Haas. That afternoon, following that painful defeat, Blake retained his empathy and perspective. "I love seeing 'em as a fan," Blake said about the US Open's distinctive way of concluding final sets. "Tough to play 'em as a player. But, you know, it shows that it's been a pretty fair match-up to get to a fifth-set tie-breaker. It's probably going to come down to a point or two here or there anyway, so might as well do it with a sudden death type of mentality."
At year's end, Blake will turn 29. "It does not seem like a decade," he says of his pro career. "It seems like just yesterday. I'm not a young kid. I feel it now when I put my head to sleep. I definitely have some aches and pains I didn't have when I started."
As the back half of his career nears, Blake in large part stands at a crossroads. Says Cahill, "He's made a remarkable effort to establish himself as a Top 10 player. We're hoping he can really take the next step and make that big breakthrough."
What's always been tricky in that department is Blake's playing style. Blake's A-game is a sizzling set of big forehands, aggressive returns, extraordinary movement and enough shotmaking for tons of highlight reels. Few players in the past 20 years have better personified the notion of a dangerous player. Watch Blake versus the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and you'll see a man extremely capable of going toe-to-toe with giants. As Nadal said earlier this year after earning his first win over Blake in four tries at the ATP Masters Series event in Indian Wells, "He's a very difficult player for me to play against… very aggressive player all the time."
But as Agassi noted just after their '05 US Open epic, Blake's game burns up a lot of fuel. And when he's not soaring, matters get complicated. Often, Blake seems to polarize the notion of his ideal playing style with a contrasting approach he's called passive or defensive. Says Cahill, "It's good that he's mostly got his eyes forward and is moving straight ahead, but there are times when you've got to find a way to win. Throw in some junk, mix it up." To help on that front, Blake and his longstanding coach, Brian Barker, have devoted much of the past four months to improving his serve and his volleys. "I'm tired of coming to net and not feeling comfortable," says Blake.
Though Blake is pleased with the consistency of his play in 2008 – he's maintained a Top 10 ranking all year – there have also been some beguiling losses, including a five-setter in the second round of Wimbledon versus Rainer Schuettler and defeats in finals to first-time winners Kei Nishikori and Marcel Granollers. "This year's been a little strange," says Blake. "I've had some ups and downs."
One major up came just prior to the US Open at the Summer Olympics, when Blake notched his first win over Federer, a 6-4, 7-6 quarterfinal victory that Blake said afterwards, "has got to be up there with the best ever." Though Blake had always tested Federer in their previous eight meetings – mostly by playing bold, attacking tennis and striking his forehand fearlessly – he'd earned but one set. In Beijing, though, Blake served better than usual, and even more so, found himself inspired by being part of Team USA. Said Blake in Beijing, "When I go out on the court and when I see USA on my chest, it's just a different kind of pride that you feel going out there. You feel inspired by other athletes. You feel inspired by Michael Phelps, Dara Torres, Tyson Gay, the Dream Team. You're just proud to be a part of it."
Alas, the up was followed by a down. Blake was unable to maintain the momentum in the semis, losing 11-9 in the third to Fernando Gonzalez after holding three consecutive match points. Perhaps such is the fate for a man like Blake who so often has played his best tennis riding a wave of emotion. A rollercoaster ride seems almost inevitable. No doubt upset by such a tight loss at such a late stage – a win over Gonzalez would have guaranteed Blake at least a silver medal to match the silver won by his close friend Mardy Fish in Athens in 2004 – he subsequently lost a match for the bronze against Novak Djokovic.
Blake knows this is a critical time for building his tennis legacy. On the one hand, he's wise enough to make such comments as "this has surpassed everything I could dream of." On the other, the sober reality is that as America's second-ranked player for the better part of this decade he's no mere curiosity – the Harvard man turned pro – but an ambitious contender still hoping to play his best tennis. "People ask about pressure," says Blake. "Yes, it's there. It's an opportunity to do something good. If there's not pressure, there won't be value."
BLAKE BEYOND TENNIS
If Blake's playing style can get somewhat narrow, off the court he's exceptionally diversified. Engaged in numerous charity projects throughout his career, earlier this year Blake announced the launch of the Thomas Blake Cancer Research Fund. Named in honor of his late father, Thomas, who died of cancer in 2004, the fund's goal is to raise $1 million for cancer research by the 2009 US Open. Already, the fund is more than halfway towards that mark. Just after the US Open, on September 12, Blake will be teaming up with his fellow Davis Cup teammates, Andy Roddick and the Bryan brothers, to hold AnthemLIVE!, a charity event for the cause held in Richmond, Virginia – hometown of one of Blake's heroes, Arthur Ashe.
Another one of Blake's heroes will also be in action during the US Open – but not on the court. The Democratic National Convention in Denver coincides with the tournament's first four days. A close follower of politics his entire life, Blake is strongly backing Barack Obama. "It makes a huge difference in our lives," Blake says about this year's presidential election. "To me what's really important in this country is the war and the economy."
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