Blake giving his career one more shot
James Blake is getting older, while the tour keeps getting younger, faster and more powerful.
The 31-year-old American is giving his career one last go after a slew of injuries that sidelined him for a fair portion of 2010, including the last three months of the season. He had a bum right knee that took away his speed, and now, even after some solid months of rehab that got his knee feeling great again, he’s saddled with a sore right shoulder.
What that means is it’s improbable the popular American ever will re-enter the top five in the ATP rankings, but he says he’s motivated again and believes that he can regain his form and make some noise again. Now ranked No. 170, he isn’t necessarily concerned that he never has reached the final four of a major, never has won a Masters Series title and, arguably during his three top-10 years, underachieved to a degree. That’s because, as he’s always said, he never thought he’d get that far anyway.
“Right now, I’ve done everything I can to get back, to make the most of my potential,” he said. “A lot of people point to matches here and there that I could have won, should have won, but I can think of 10 to 20 matches that I shouldn’t have won, but I did. So looking back isn’t going to do any good. It’s just a matter of being as well prepared as I possibly could be for each one. That’s what I’m proud of. . . . I missed the competition, the break points, the pressure. I’m still hungry and want to succeed. When my body tells me to stop, I will. And it’s tested me a bit, but it hasn’t told me to stop yet.”
Whether Blake actually can retire with peace of mind is debatable, for as talkative as he is, there’s always been the feeling he doesn’t reveal much of his true self to the public. But after his second-round loss to powerful young Canadian Milos Raonic at San Jose’s SAP Open on Wednesday, he was pretty realistic about how much the tour has changed since he began to pay attention to it. It was rare back in the 1990s that he’d see a 6-foot-5 like Raonic blaze first serves close to 150 mph and second serves in the 120s, and also be able to move swiftly from side to side and dictate from the backcourt.
“His serve is huge, and I hear people comparing him to Pete Sampras. And I remember watching Sampras when I was a kid and everyone talking about his rocket of a serve, and I looked at the speed gun and it was around 126,” said Blake after his 6-2, 7-6 (4) defeat. “I watched Milos ace me with a second serve tonight, and it was around 123. It’s a big difference in how the game has changed in technology and how the game is getting bigger.”
Blake’s weapons have been his speed, his huge forehand, an aggressive return and a decent volley. His one-handed backhand has improved a lot since he came on tour in 1999, but it’s still attackable, and his serve is a bit of a disaster for a guy that strong.
Plus, he’s a stubborn sort who never likes to play defense. Although he’s lost plenty of close matches he could have won had he eased off the pedal a bit and cut down on his unforced errors, he insists it’s when he doesn’t take an ultra-aggressive mentality into matches that he loses. Plenty of coaches and commentators disagree, but that doesn’t matter to him as he continues to march at the beat of his own drummer.
“My career is something that won’t go down in the Sampras and Agassi levels,” he said. “I probably won’t end up in Newport [the International Tennis Hall of Fame], but I’ve got plenty of moments that I’ll never forget. Most people don’t get a chance to say that.”
Blake says he needs to get the rust off and will try to play a ton of events despite his sore shoulder. He received wild cards into Memphis next week and at Delray Beach the following week and hopes to get one into Miami two weeks later. He no longer is traveling with a full-time coach, only a full-time physical trainer, as he doesn’t feel at age 31 that he needs someone to help figure out strategy.
That’s true of most players over 30, but how is Blake going to be able to figure out how to contend with three of the tour’s youngest hotshots — Raonic, Richard Berankis of Lithuania and Kei Nishikori of Japan — all of whom are in San Jose this week? They can give the ball a ride off both wings and could care less about his resume. As Blake said, the 21-and-under set is fearless.
“It’s like watching 6- and 7-year-olds on ski slopes go down and have no idea they are near a tree,” Blake said. “I wish I could be that fearless, but I’m 31 years old.”
Blake, who spent two years at Harvard, said he has a lot of options for when he retires. He is reticent about returning to school, but he would like to open a tennis club one day and work with elite juniors, many of whom he says get burned out too early and don’t actually like to play the sport.
Blake always has liked to play. He knows all about adversity and what it takes to turn the corner. At age 13, Blake was diagnosed with severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine), which forced him to wear a back brace 18 hours a day. Yet he still made it on the pro tennis tour. In May 2004, he ran into a net post at the tournament in Rome and fractured vertebrae in his neck. Then, in summer of that year, he contracted zoster, a condition that affected his hearing and vision and caused temporary paralysis on one side of his face. Right about that time, Blake’s father, Thomas, died of cancer at age 57.
Still, he has his best results over the next few years, winning seven titles and reaching the quarterfinals of the 2005 U.S. Open (beating then-No. 2 Rafael Nadal along the way). There, he lost a remarkable, late-night five-setter to Andre Agassi in what is considered one of the most exciting matches in tournament history. In 2006, he reached a career high No. 4 ranking and, in 2007, he helped lead the United States to its first Davis Cup title in 12 years.
So despite his advancing age and the improved depth on tour, Blake does have some reason for optimism.
“If I never make it back (to a high ranking), I’d know I did my best to come back and had a lot of fun,” he said. “If I do, I will enjoy the process again and know how lucky I was to go up and down twice. To do it three times would be something I’m pretty proud of.”