Fish has Pilot Pen title in mind; Blake's focus elsewhere
Updated: 08/20/2009 06:44:27 PM EDT
NEW HAVEN -- The sun was lost behind a sweltering wall of humidity as the clock ticked slowly past 11:30 in the morning on Stadium Court at the Connecticut Tennis Center. It was hot, melt-the-bottom-of-your-sneakers hot, as James Blake and Mardy Fish slammed forehands and backhands at each other.
Fish was here, practicing for the upcoming Pilot Pen Tennis tournament, while Blake, from nearby Fairfield, was just practicing, period. Commitments for his upcoming new clothing line, along with other appearances he's scheduled to make next week in New York, are preventing him from playing in the tournament he's won twice and created a fan phenomenon -- the J Block -- in the process.
For Fish, who lost to Blake in the 2007 Pilot Pen finals, there are no commitments for clothing lines, no personal appearances, just tennis. And maybe, just maybe, that's why Fish is climbing up the rankings ladder and Blake is going in the opposite direction.
Once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, Blake is not even in the top 20 as he begins his preparation for the U.S. Open in two weeks. After an opening-round loss to Igor Kunitsyn on Tuesday in Cincinnati, Blake's 2009 record fell to 19-15. He has lost his last five matches, including two in Davis Cup play back in June, when he broke his toe walking into a suitcase in his hotel room in Croatia.
He stands at No. 24 now, falling below Fish, who's worked his way to No. 22, despite playing with a fractured rib also suffered in his Davis Cup match. Last year at this time, Fish was sitting in the low 40s in the rankings, but he's already won this year at Delray Beach, Fla., reached the finals at San Jose, Calif., and made the quarters at Estoril (Portugal), Queen's Club (London) and Los Angeles.
And after reaching the finals at the Pilot Pen two years running, Fish, despite the injury, is looking forward to getting to the finals again. And this time, winning.
"I got here early to try and prepare and do the best I can. I've always played this tournament before the Open. I love coming here and I've had some success here," Fish said after a two hour-plus workout with Blake. "I always play the week before because I try to gain as much confidence as I can going into a Slam. It's been frustrating sitting at home watching these guys in TV."
Fish broke the rib 45 minutes into his Davis Cup match against Marin Cilic, a five-set match that went 4½ hours before Fish fell 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-8. Since, he's played only in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., winning one of three matches.
"Incomplete is probably the best way to describe my game," he said. "I had an injury. We found out that it was a broken rib. That was a little frustrating. I've laid off of serving, serving is the only thing that gets it (hurting), so I've laid off that for he better part of two weeks and here we are."
Fish could have decided against playing in the Pilot Pen, wanting to rest his injury before the Open. But unlike a lot of the other big names on Tour, who gear up for the Open with some R&R, Fish gears up with a lot of P&P, practice and play.
"I like to come and play in a tournament," he said. "I like getting match practice over just practice practice."
You would think Blake would have the same mindset. He's coming off a dismal summer of competition, injured toe notwithstanding. You would have thought that the Pilot Pen, the scene of perhaps his greatest triumph in 2005, would have been the perfect place to rock with the J Block and get some confidence-building wins under his belt before the U.S. Open. But apparently, there are too many off-the-court activities filling his calendar these days.
"There are a lot of things going into it (the decision). I would love to play in Connecticut. I love playing here. I love the fans, they seem to appreciate my style of tennis," Blake said. "But I do have a lot of commitments. I have my clothing line coming out. I have a lot of stuff to do for that."
Blake pointed a finger at the ATP, blaming the schedule -- there are 1000 Masters Series events (which are mandatory for Blake) in Montreal and Cincinnati before New Haven -- as reasons for his inability to include the Pilot Pen on his calendar. However, in both 2007 and 2006, Blake played Montreal, Cincinnati and New Haven back-to-back-to-back before heading to the Open.
At least he left the door open about returning in 2010.
"I can definitely see myself coming back here. The fans here are the greatest," he said. "It was just this year was a little too tough, especially with how the scheduling has been for the ATP. That makes it really difficult. I think there are going to be some tweaks to the ATP schedule, and when that happens, this would be the first spot I'd look at to have a change in the calendar to make it possible for me to play here."