Resilient Blake tops Rusedski at U.S. Open
By Steve Wilstein, The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Backed by his friends and many fans chanting "James! James! James!" in Arthur Ashe Stadium, James Blake served a 131 mph ace to reach match point, then ripped a backhand passing shot to beat the No. 28 Greg Rusedski, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3.
To see Blake play so beautifully and with unfettered ease in a straight-sets takedown of former finalist Rusedski at the U.S. Open on Tuesday was to watch a man who summoned a reservoir of inner strength from a year of unrelenting misery following a fractured neck injury.
Unseeded, Blake may not be a threat to win the Open. He's playing the best tennis of his life at age 25, but he harbors no illusions that he's in the same class as No. 1 Roger Federer, who won his first-round match against Czech newcomer Ivo Minar 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 in 1 hour, 1 minute earlier in the day, or No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who could end Blake's run in the third round.
It was a sweltering afternoon at the Open as No. 12 Tim Henman of Britain lost 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in the first round to Spain's Fernando Verdasco. Women's No. 2 Lindsay Davenport won in straight sets in the breezy evening after No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo, No. 6 Elena Dementieva and French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, No. 7, did the same during the day. There were touches of drama in three-time French Open champ Gustavo Kuerten's 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (3) victory over American Paul Goldstein.
But there was no more joyous scene than in the stadium as Blake played his heart out a year after he could do no more than watch the tournament from home.
"It was tough to watch," Blake said. "I kept thinking, 'I wonder how I'd be doing if I was there.' Now this year to go out there, it's just a great feeling."
Blake won his first tournament in three years on Sunday in New Haven, Conn., not far from where he grew up in Fairfield. It was a victory, a few weeks after he reached the final in Washington against Andy Roddick, that showed how far Blake had come since his lowest moments — when he lay in a hospital bed with a fractured neck last spring from a freak accident on court; or when he later contracted an illness that affected his sight and hearing and temporarily paralyzed part of his face; or when he watched his father dying of cancer last summer.
"Every different scenario was going through my head," Blake said of his toughest days. "At times I was thinking, 'I wonder if I'll be able to play again. I wonder if my face will ever come back to normal.' Just kind of general curiosity as to what life has in store for me. Just trying to think about every situation and find a way to be happy with each situation.
"If I couldn't play tennis again, am I still going to be happy going back to school, maybe going to business school, doing whatever else I could do? ... Would I be able to be happy if my eye never came back to normal and I couldn't really be athletic at all the rest of my life? Could I find a way to still be happy? All those I tried to answer yes."
He could answer yes, he said, because he still had friends, still had people who believed in him and would stand by him, joke with him, make him smile. He had the lifetime lessons of his father, who had learned tennis in middle age and "attacked it with the same vigor that he did everything."
"He taught me about hard work, the joy of hard work for just improving yourself," Blake said.
Blake's life has long been a story of triumphing over difficulties. At age 13, he was diagnosed with severe scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which forced him to wear a back brace 18 hours a day. He didn't let that stop him from becoming an athlete, going to Harvard for two years, then pursuing a pro tennis career. He got his ATP ranking up to No. 22 in 2003 and seemed capable of moving higher. Then, suddenly, he was gone from the game for nine months when he fractured his neck after crashing into a net post while practicing in Rome and came down afterward with a case of shingles.
All of that, good and bad, imbued Blake with a deep appreciation for what it takes to be successful and what each achievement means. He could look up into the stands and see his friends cheering for him, know they'll be there for him, win or lose, as they were when he was home last year, dealing with his injury, his illness and his father's cancer.
"They were all someone special to me, every single one of them there," he said. "It means so much to be (winning at the Open again) in front of them. They're picking me up now when I'm high. They were picking me up when I was low. I don't know how much I can give back to them, but everything I do, it's probably not enough for how much they've done for me."