April 9, 2005, 1:10AM
Blake is making a comeback
Injury-plagued American will meet Haas in semifinals
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
James Blake looks at Tommy Haas and immediately feels better about his chances of becoming the player he still believes he can be, a player capable of beating anybody anywhere on any surface.
Haas, once the No. 2 player in the world, has come back from two shoulder operations, the first for full rotator-cuff surgery. Blake, once the No. 22 player in the world, is trying to come back from a broken neck, a broken heart and a broken face, all incurred in 2004. The kind of year, he says, "I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy."
So, for a number of reasons, he is delighted to have the opportunity to take Haas' measure in the River Oaks International semifinals. They've only played once before, when Blake was ascendant and Haas was despondent, contemplating the end of his career.
The right perspective
Blake won easily, a script the unseeded 25-year-old American says he's unlikely to reprise today. But that won't matter.
"I've learned there are worse things than losing tennis matches," he said.
Blake is playing tennis matches again, and he's playing them pretty well, too, as Hugo Armando will attest. Blake took out Armando, the tournament's defending co-champion, with surprising ease 6-4, 6-2. Earlier, the top-seeded Haas had eliminated Mike Russell 6-3, 6-3.
Russell bears scars of his own. He had surgery on both knees in October. And another semifinalist, No. 8 Dmitry Tursunov, who ousted 18-year-old Phillip Simmonds 6-2, 2-6, 6-1, has been on the court just once in 2005 as he continues rehabbing from a broken vertebrae in the lower back suffered July 4.
Ginepri vs. Ryderstedt
Of River Oaks' final four, only the No. 5 seed, Robby Ginepri, hasn't had to cope with any serious medical emergencies of late, although he admits he did endure a troubling period of brain-dead tennis last year. He also had early relapses, but his opponent, 20-year-old Michael Ryderstedt succumbed with a bare minimum of resistance 6-1, 6-3, never looking like the player who had upset the second-seed, Jiri Novak.
Blake's travails began in Rome May 6, when he collided with a net post during a practice hit and cracked a vertebrae in his spine. Even that proved fortunate because doctors told him had he struck his head as fast as he was moving, he'd likely be in a wheel chair today.
But just as he was feeling better, a different kind of trauma felled him.
His father, Tom, died of cancer. The stress of that ordeal, on top of the injury, apparently made him vulnerable to a disease called zoster, which left him dizzy with blurred vision and half of his face paralyzed.
"I could barely hit a ball," he said. "But I was so bored that I decided to play a tournament and that cost me my protected ranking, as I knew it would. I didn't care."
The ATP requires a full six-month layoff. His entering the Delray Beach, Fla., event explains why he's currently 188th in the world.
"I don't mind trying to earn it again," Blake said of the lengthy climb ahead. "If I don't get back, then I won't deserve to get back."
Haas loves Houston
Haas, 27 and ranked 16th, is much further along — but he had further to go, having missed most of two years while doctors tried to successfully repair his shoulder. Last April in Houston, he announced his return to good health by whipping Andy Roddick in the U.S. Clay Courts finals at Westside Tennis Club.
"There haven't been any jolts of pain since that scared me," Haas said after dispatching Russell. "Believe me, I know what to look for."