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Commentary: Backhand holds hostage Blake's confidence

03-24-2007, 07:30 AM
Commentary: Backhand holds hostage Blake's confidence

By Charles Elmore

Palm Beach Post Columnist

Saturday, March 24, 2007

KEY BISCAYNE — A message to the kidnappers: Please release James Blake's backhand unharmed and we will meet your demands.

Nobody gets hurt, OK? We just want American tennis to walk away from this with two top-10 men's players, not one.

We have reason to believe you might also know something about the whereabouts of Blake's confidence.

It was last seen before an overnight rain delay during the Delray Beach final in early February. World No. 8 Blake, perhaps looking ahead to Davis Cup play, blew a set lead against Xavier Malisse in Delray almost two months ago. In all, he has lost six of his past nine matches.

The slide continued with a 7-6 ( , 2-6, 6-3 disaster against No. 64 Florent Serra in Blake's first match at the Sony Ericsson Open on Friday.

Blake said he is hard pressed to say why, but we can look at the evidence: Serra attacked Blake's backhand without remorse. Blake reached out for shots to his left wing as gingerly as if he were trying to flip frying bacon.

In the third set, Blake applied a clumsy spatula to a backhand that could have set up a double break point for him as he trailed 3-1. He spun it way out. He hung his head so far it touched his racket.

"I don't know where it started, but last week at Indian Wells, same thing," Blake said. "When I'm playing well and playing confident, I go for shots and more of those tend to go my way. Today, they didn't."

Blake's inner circle - longtime mentor Brian Barker, Blake's brother Thomas and his former doubles partner Mark Merklein - might not be to blame for the disappearance of the backhand. But they should immediately search for a solution similar to one No. 4 Andy Roddick found.

Blake is playing like Roddick was a year ago. Opponents know the drill: If you can get his best shot in play (Roddick's serve, Blake's forehand), feed him high backhands until the sun sets.

"I tried to put some spin to play high on his backhand, and he gave me some balls short and then I tried to go to the net," Serra said. "On my serve, I tried to serve, also, and keep (hitting to) his backhand, and I think it helped me a little bit."

Blake beat Serra in straight sets two weeks ago in California, making Friday's match an alarming barometer of decline.

Blake's last two losing shots were backhands in a match in which he hit more unforced errors (36) than winners (33).

"I guess this is three tournaments in a row where he's gone out early," lamented Sony Ericsson Open chairman Butch Buchholz, shaking his head at losing a headlining American so quickly.

"Not good," somebody said.

"Nope," Buchholz said.

The counteractive strategy for Roddick was to hire Jimmy Connors as his coach after Wimbledon last year.

Connors refocused Roddick on hitting offensive shots with the backhand, such as taking balls early and stepping into shots up the line. He might miss some of those, but most importantly, Roddick stopped retreating into a shaky corner of low confidence.

Blake is not likely to change coaches easily. Barker has tutored him since age 12 and brought him through far graver challenges: a neck injury, shingles, vertigo and the death of Blake's father. But Blake may have to change the way he practices and his strategy.

If we take Blake at his word, this is not an injury problem. His trainer timeout late in the third set for his right wrist was to treat a temporary cramp, he said.

A search of Doc's Soft Serve and beachside cafes in Delray Beach has turned up few clues.

This much is clear: Blake needs to reunite with his backhand or he is not long for the top 10. He's almost guaranteed to slip at least to No. 9 behind Tommy Haas when the next ranking list comes out in early April.

"Hopefully I can turn it around," Blake said. "It turned around pretty quickly from being very confident to not as confident, so I hope it can turn right back around the same way."

03-26-2007, 05:11 PM
thanks for this. I just read "goodwoman's " post about his backhand as well.