James Blake may be getting ahead of himself. He’s caught a whiff of U.S. Open magic and now seems to think that on a great day, he can take out the likes of world No. 3 Novak Djokovic, despite the fact that he came into the tournament ranked No. 108 and without having reached the semifinals of a single tournament this year, or having beaten a top-15 ranked player.
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But after a somewhat impressive 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Canadian qualifier Peter Polansky in the second round, Blake is feeling his oats again. Forget the fact that he flamed out of all the U.S. Open tune-ups. This is New York, the place where he was born, the place close to where he grew up in Connecticut, and just fours hours from Harvard, where he went to college.
Here, his preppy friends turn into screaming fanatics when they take over a luxury suite and form the boozy "J-Block." Here he experienced some of his most memorable runs, scoring great wins over Rafael Nadal and Tommy Robredo in 2005 before his near miss in the quarterfinals against Andre Agassi. A year later, he notched authoritative wins over former No. 1 Carlos Moya and Tomas Berdych before going down in a toe-to-toe battle against Roger Federer.
This is home, and all the talk of a possible retirement after a sorry exit at Wimbledon has dissipated.
"I felt like the tennis has been coming," Blake said. "That’s why it’s been frustrating with the inconsistency, where it goes one good match, one bad match, one good match. That gets pretty frustrating. I’m kind of a perfectionist. I expect a lot out of myself. When I do come to the Open, there is definitely something different, some memories for me, some good feelings.
"Tonight, having the crowd there, it made a big difference, getting that double fault at four-all in the fourth set. I know Peter is a young guy and definitely felt the pressure. There were seven or eight thousand people cheering for me right then. That makes a big difference. Just the energy level from the crowd gets my feet moving a little better. When I’m moving my feet, I’m playing some of my best tennis. Once you start getting a couple wins, you really start believing anything’s possible."
But is it really possible that he can best Djokovic, who hasn’t had his best season, but who rarely loses early and has gone deep at the U.S. Open time and time again, including reaching the 2008 final? Maybe, because Blake made a smart decision after Wimbledon when he finally decided to start taking anti-inflammatories to deal with his chronically sore knee, something he has refused to do throughout his career. It was then that he said that he might not be able to play the Open, was considering taking the fall off, and maybe, just maybe, if things didn’t turn around, the 30-year-old might consider calling it a career in the near future.
Blake has always been a stubborn guy, which has aided him many times as he’s refused to lose, but it has also encumbered him as he failed to make some critical changes that may have pushed the former No. 4 closer to the top, or at least to one Slam semifinal.
"I changed my mind," Blake said. "I’ve been asked many times what my goals were for tennis. I always say the same thing. When I’m done, I want to have no regrets. I didn’t want to get to a point where I was forced into a decision of playing through too much pain to make it intolerable. I didn’t want to be sitting around five years from now saying I could have extended my career if I listened to all the doctors and trainers who say, ‘Take some Motrin, a couple of anti-inflammatories.’ So I did. I’ve been taking them since after Wimbledon. My knees are feeling great."
Because of his injuries and lack of form, Blake didn’t have as many matches as he’d like heading into the Open. His rhythm isn’t all there, but he has been playing tennis for a long time, and it could come quickly enough. On great days, he’s still much the same player who wowed the crowds a few short years ago with his outstanding speed, huge forehand, a leaping backhand and a decent volley. He’ll never do what so many coaches have suggested, which is to develop a more secure "B" game for when things aren’t going right, as he believes it was outright aggression that saw him crack the top 10, and it was a largely passive game that kept him down. Why he feels like he has to play the same way and never make important strategic adjustments is mind-blowing, considering that the world’s top two, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, do it all the time. But there is no changing his mind.
"If any regrets might have been, some of the things that I went through — trial and error — early on in my career, trying to play too defensive, changing my string, just little things like that," he said. "I had to find out what works best for me. It took me a couple years, coming to the realization there’s one style that works for me that uses my talents to the best of my ability. That’s why I stick to it, because if I don’t do that, I’m not going to be good."
He hasn’t always been good playing that way either, but be that as it may, it’s worked for him in his first two matches at the U.S. Open. Djokovic is a way better player than either the No. 205-ranked Polanksy or his first round opponent, the No. 308 ranked Kristof Vliegan. The Serbian moves just as well, is more solid defensively, has a better backhand, serves and returns more consistently than Blake does. It’s possible that Blake can dazzle him with his shotmaking, but Djokovic is quite adept at grinding opponents back into their proper places, and Blake is going to have to reach his mid-decade levels to even have a sniff of a chance.
But he seems to think that he does, and given that Djokovic has shrunk like a violet at a few of the Slams this year in big matches, maybe having 23,000 folks screaming for Blake on a Saturday afternoon will be enough.
"I’m sure if people on the outside are looking at it, you’ve got to think that he’s the favorite," Blake said. He’s played some great tennis and plays very well on hard courts. But the only time we played was a pretty close match in the Olympics.
"I would expect it to be a pretty good match. I’m going to have to play well, that’s for sure. If I go out there and I start dictating, I feel like I have a good shot. But there’s also a good shot that he comes out and plays great tennis and proves why he’s No. 3 in the world right now. But it will be on Ashe Stadium. I think I’ll have pretty good crowd support. Hopefully I can come up with some of my best as I’ve been known to do at the Open before."