Blake first to commit to men’s Pen
Jim Fuller , Register Staff
As James Blake boarded a flight for Paris on Saturday, the tennis player, once ranked among the top 25, finally had a chance to ponder his future.
Only a couple of hours earlier, Blake stood on the court at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y., after overpowering Dusan Vemic 6-3, 6-4 to win the United States Tennis Association Challenger. At that point, he was noncommittal about his intention to play at the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament in New Haven in late August.
But somewhere between sips of soda on his way from continent to continent, he gave the matter plenty of thought. By the time he set foot on French soil, Blake had decided that he could fit the New Haven-based Pilot Pen into his busy summer schedule.
On Monday, Blake, 25, a former Fairfield resident, made it official as he became the first men’s player to commit to the tournament, which will be held from Aug. 21-28 at the Connecticut Tennis Center.
"You really don’t get too many opportunities to play in your home state," said Blake, who is making a comeback after missing much of 2004 and the early part of this season with a fractured vertebrae and then the Zoster virus, which caused temporary paralysis on one side of his face.
"As soon as the news hit (that the Pilot Pen was granted the contract of the former TD Waterhouse Cup in Commack. N.Y.), my friends at home called me right away to see if I was going to play. It is exciting to know that I will have a lot of fans and support in New Haven and Yale. It wasn’t that tough of a decision.
"I was pretty busy playing the tennis tournaments, so it wasn’t a time when I was talking to my agent or figuring out my schedule. Once I finished in Forest Hills and realized that there was a chance to play in New Haven, it was kind of a no-brainer."
Blake, whose ranking plummeted from a career high of 22 all the way into the high 100s during his absence from the ATP Tour, won back-to-back Challengers in Tunica, Miss., and Forest Hills the last two weeks. Blake enters the qualifying tournament for the French Open ranked No. 69.
Blake was at his best on tour between 2002-03. His only ATP singles title came at Washington, D.C., in August, 2002, when he upset Andre Agassi in straight sets in the semifinals and then defeated Paradorn Srichapan in a three-set final. Blake also reached the finals in Memphis, Tenn., and Newport, R.I., only to lose in three sets to Andy Roddick and Taylor Dent, respectively.
But the optimism Blake felt heading into the 2004 season was short-lived. In a practice session after being eliminated from the Italian Open, Blake went racing toward the net for a drop shot off the racket of his coach Brian Barker. Blake crashed into the ring post and suffered a serious neck injury. In the course of the next year, his father Thomas passed away and he contracted the Zoster virus.
"It is hard sitting on the sidelines watching people play who you think you can compete with," Blake said. "It is going to make me stronger because I have a new perspective on the court. I had time to work on things I wouldn’t have been able to if I was playing so many tournaments.
"I am going to try to look it as a positive. I think it is going to make me a better player, but it will be a while for my ranking to show that. It is all a part of the new perspective and patience I have learned through having a tough year."
There have been signs that Blake is ready to become a major player on the pro circuit once again.
He owns a pair of wins over top 20 player Kenneth Carlsen in 2005, took Carlos Moya to three sets in the second round of the Nasdaq-100 in Miami in March, and defeated Nikolay Davydenko, then ranked eighth, in the second round at Indian Wells, Calif.
Blake’s play has been a bit inconsistent in his recent ATP appearances, but he saw encouraging signs at the two clay court challengers he played the last two weeks.
"It is like starting over," Blake said. "You want to get through these events as quickly as possible. You don’t want to stall. It took me a long time my first time through, but these are some of my fondest memories. I came through (the USTA Challenge Circuit) with Robby Ginepri, Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick, and now they are still some of my best friends on tour.
"I was attacking pretty well. I was moving my feet really well, which really was important. I really only had one letdown (in Friday’s semifinals) for a set and a half. I wasn’t moving my feet very well. The only thing that wasn’t at my best was my serve, but I had three or four matches earlier this week where it felt great, so I am not worried about that."
Blake now has to win three qualifying matches to earn a spot in the main draw of the French Open. He is seeded 17th and draws fellow American Cecil Mamiit in the first round. Blake is hoping to receive a wild card into the main draw of Wimbledon.
"My ranking isn’t good enough to get me in right now," Blake said. "I am hoping to get a wild card, being half English (Blake’s mother Betty is English) may help me. I have had some exciting matches there, so maybe they will look at that and give me the opportunity to play in the main draw. If not, I will have to go back to qualifying."
There will be no such concern when it comes to the Pilot Pen.
Pilot Pen Tournament Director Anne Worcester told Blake during a conference call Monday that "it is so appropriate that you’re the first men’s player to enter."
Blake expects to be just one of the big hitters who will come to New Haven and play in the first men’s professional tennis tournament in Connecticut since the 1998 Pilot Pen.
"I kind of hope there is plenty more," Blake said. "Growing up watching the tournament, there was always a great field. The only year I got to play in it (1998), I was in the qualifying. In the main draw, there were players like (Pete) Sampras, (Patrick) Rafter and (Goran) Ivansevic, so I know they have to ability to draw big players, and I hope they draw many more. I hope some day I will be considered in the realm of a player that can bring in a whole lot of fans."
TIER V EVENT AT FOREST HILLS?
The WTA Tour calendar still lists the Tier V event, which will run the same week as the Pilot Pen, as "to be determined." That could soon be changing.
Last year, the event was held in Forest Hills and Dina Ingersole, the tournament director of the event as well as the Challenger Series event won by Blake last week, said the site should be determined soon.
"I think we have a significantly better than even chance of getting it, but the ‘I’s aren’t dotted and the ‘T’s aren’t crossed," Ingersole said. "(The 2004 event) went well. You get to see a very high caliber of players. I think the women really enjoyed being here. It was a different type of an event than we have run here before."
Jim Fuller can be reached at [email protected].
©New Haven Register 2005