By Matthew Cronin
Everybody loves James Blake – fans, media, and other players. The American is smart, gracious and has a tremendous back-story. He's athletic, charming, good-looking and owns an all-court game that keeps fans parked in their seats.
But Blake wants to be more than just a good guy. He wants to be a truly elite player – on his terms. U.S. tennis officials would love to see that, too, because with Andre Agassi now a part-time player and Andy Roddick struggling, the nation needs another solid performer who can help the U.S. Davis Cup team to its first title in a decade and also go deep at the Grand Slams.
At 25, Blake appears to be coming of age. Since August, he's won four tournaments (Washington, New Haven, Stockholm and Sydney), upset Rafael Nadal at the U.S. Open and nearly knocked off Andre Agassi in a five-set classic in the quarters. Sure, he flamed against Tommy Robredo at the Aussie Open, but he just cracked the top 20 for the first time and scored two wins for the U.S. Davis Cup team over Romania.
"James has taken his game to another level," U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe said. "He has an excellent chance to make a significant run this year. His game is ready to go up a level or two."
It was the New York-born, Connecticut-raised Blake's spectacular 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) loss to Agassi at the NTC that really brought him to the world's attention as huge talented performer You could not possibly script any better what happened in front of 20,000 delirious fans after 1 a.m. on Thursday morning for Agassi, but the final chapter could have been penned more lovingly for Blake.
At 5-5 in the breaker, Blake missed a forehand winner by a hair. Then on Agassi's first match point, Blake hammered a forehand winner. Then at 6-6, Agassi went to his now beloved drop shot and pass routine and scored. On the last point of the match off a second serve, Agassi turned his sore body around, hit a forehand as hard as he could and watched it blow a hole in two lines.
Blake became almost-famous in a match that will be replayed forever during rain delays (maybe supplanting Connors-Krickstein and Sampras-Agassi, or at least being run side by side with them).
"Its one thing to be up two sets to love, but that's what Andre is great at," Blake told IT. "If he had played to not let me win, I would have won. He took it to me legitimately in the third and the fourth. The fifth was a dogfight. I know I served for it, but he took it to me in that game. The only thing I regret is the 6-6 point when he hit the drop shot and I went to his backhand and I should have made him beat me with his forehand or put him on the run more. We played an exo in Idaho last winter and they replayed the point on the big screen and I was thinking, ÔI won it on that shot, no on the next shot – three times really, and then he won the point. I did think what if I could have beaten Robby and then played Roger and you never know what's going to happen on a given day. I was saying to one of my friends – when are one of those matches going to go my way?' But he said, one of those matches? That wasn't just one of those matches. That was a great, great match. That picked me up. I was so into the fact that I lost, that I forgot I was in one of the greatest matches ever."
Blake went from almost famous to pretty famous, pretty quickly. When he got back home to Florida, one of his best friends, fellow pro Mardy Fish, clued him in.
" He said dude, you are huge now. You're on Letterman and everything. I didn't know that, because when I heard yelling, which I rarely do, it was my friends in the J-Block, and I don't think I'm super popular just because my friends since I've been 12 are cheering for me. I wasn't thinking of the 20,000 people screaming, just the 40 people in my suite."
It could get much louder for Blake if he fulfills his potential, which according to his pal Andy Roddick, is super elite yellow ball.
"James best tennis is ahead of him," Roddick said. "The way he moves and strikes the ball and how good of an athlete he is, on paper, he's a lot better than most guys."
“People can be much more dangerous when you give them a second chance. You injure yourself, and you come back even stronger...It takes a lot of hard work. I don’t feel like I’ve hit a plateau quite yet.”
Blake isn't into the chatter about how good he's become, how great he can be, or how shaky he once was. It's all about process and playing as well as you can in the moment. He's not a public goal setter so having "top-five, top-five" chanted at him has little effect.
"I've never set goals like that because if I were to get to top five and haven't worked as hard and rested on those good results and just gotten a few good draws where I've played guys that aren't playing that well or injured, it would be a little empty to me. My goal is to just keep improving. Obviously I've improved quite a bit in the last year, and your ranking ends up showing that, but my end goal isn't the ranking; my end goal is to keep getting better. Top five is possible, but I don't set goals like I'm going to be a success or I'm not going to be a success by making No. 5 in the world."
But that's how much of the tennis world sees it – if you are not in the super-elite mix, you are not on the radar screen. But Blake has a different perspective on his career, which dates back to Ô04, when he had about as bad a year as one could ever have. In May that year, he ran into a net post in Rome and suffered fractured vertebrae in his neck. Then in the summer, he contracted zoster, a condition affecting hearing and vision and causing temporary paralysis on one side of his face. Right around that time, his father, Thomas, died at age 57 of cancer. James played three matches during the last five months of Ô94.
Blake knows all about dealing with illness, as at age 13, he was diagnosed with severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine), which forced him to wear a back brace 18 hours a day. But dealing with a neck injury, a severe virus and his dad's death all within a couple of month's time took its toll on him. "There was a question as to whether I could ever come back. My thoughts were just on getting better," Blake said. " I couldn't move half my face and I was just happy to be able to smile and walk around again. With tennis, I felt lucky to even be able to get back. I didn't even feel comfortable hitting until December."
So when Blake returned full time last year, he was entering the second stage of his career. Before he was injured, he wasn't exactly tearing up the tour, but he was one of the tour's fastest players, had a terrific forehand and is a good athlete around the net. Last year, he significantly improved his two main weaknesses – his serve and his backhand.
"When I was injured, I couldn't do much of anything," he said. "When I was sick, I was really dizzy. I wasn't practicing. I got to the point where I could hit a little, but I felt extremely un-athletic as my balance was still messed up and my vision was pretty blurred. But that's the time when you can work on things you don't normally get a chance to work when on tour. When you have that much time, it's a chance to do something really positive. That was my chance to work on defense, do a ton a running even if it's not the most fun thing . I worked on my serve. And I'm hitting my backhand now. When you have blurred vision, you got to be pretty cautious with your backhand. Once I felt comfortable with it. I was like okay, why can't I swing out on it? Now it's a matter of that confidence I feel I can take a swing at it and it ended up being better. The more aggressive I am with it, I end up making less mistakes because I have a simple mindset. I don't think, maybe I should just roll this one, maybe I should push it. If I get a short one, I'm going to hit it. I end up playing a lot better. For many years, guys have attacked my backhand, but these days, they are a little more cautious."
There are those analysts, such as John McEnroe, who don't believe that Blake will ever be a top five player because he has never shown the consistency to be able to produce a high level week in, week out. He's very flashy, and many flashy players have fried in the pan.
"It was great to see him make that [U.S. Open] run," Johnny Macsaid. "He's someone who has proven his athletic ability. He believes in himself more. His story has allowed him to play with more of a sense of calm. He's very dangerous. But it's difficult to say he could go all the way and win something [big]. I could see him challenge, around, say, 10. I'm not sure that he's got the consistency to go all the way."
But Blake still sees room for improvement and if he continues his learning curve at the supersonic rate that he showed over the past seven months, he should crack the top 10 by April. And then the sky is the limit.
"Now I've been given a second chance to do it," Blake said. "People can be much more dangerous when you give them a second chance. You injure yourself, and you come back even stronger. People become better every year. You need to stay ahead of that, to get four, five times better. I've been able to do that, and that's something I'm proud of. It takes a lot of hard work. I don't feel like I've hit a plateau quite yet."