Blake Out in Quarters... Again
January 26, 2009 -- James Blake has never made it past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. This major could have been different, given his preparation. But it wasn't. Blake lost in the round of sixteen to Jo-Wilfred Tsonga tonight 64 64 76 (3). So what's the deal?
Last fall, Blake knew he was exhausted. The tour schedule was thrown for a loop with the Olympics in Beijing scheduled at the beginning of August: smack dab in the middle of the summer hard-court season. Blake played back-to-back Masters Series tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati, then flew halfway around the world to China, and then back to New York City for the U. S. Open.
After Blake's quarterfinal loss to Roger Federer at the Open, the die was cast. He suggested a rest to his coach Brian Barker. After 17 years of coaching the American, Barker could sense the exhaustion and agreed.
The Olympics was probably the event that broke his unfaltering spirit. He missed the Davis Cup semifinal against Spain plus the year-ending Tennis Masters Cup, which would have required another trip halfway around the world to Shanghai.
His only tournament before the Australian Open was Hopman Cup in Perth, which is on the west coast of the country. When Blake started his run in Melbourne he looked refreshed, rested and classy in his new clothes from FILA. Blake had always been a Nike guy. The shirts with sleeves and collar blended will with his style.
Blake danced his way through the first three rounds, no problem. But today, he hit a familiar wall. Broken in the first game of the first two sets, he went ahead 5/2 in the third and then lost in a tiebreak.
The ESPN commentators ragged on James from the booth. They wanted him to stand back from the baseline. Tsonga served monsterly. Patrick McEnroe wondered why Blake wouldn't back off and give himself more time to return. They pounded him as hard as Tsonga pounded his serves and forehand. Blake wouldn't and didn't budge.
Blake took the ball early and screamed it back at his opponent, as much as possible. He came out, though, with only one plan in mind -- which is the usual pattern for him. Today, however, his opponent out hit him. Blake was successful at the net -- 76% -- but didn't use that strategy with any consistency. The threat of a huge return from Tsonga was very real. However, on second serves James should have looked to approach. He's quick, athletic, and has good hands.
Maybe Blake didn't want to make any changes. Maybe he thought that if he broke through and beat the Frenchman it would be on his terms.
As mentioned, Brian Barker and James have had a long-term relationship. Barker has given up a chunk of his private life to raise James on court. No one can deny Barker's extraordinary contributions to James. However, relationships -- in sports and otherwise -- tend toward isolation. A certain exclusivity develops. Perhaps James should consider a change? But the bigger question is: Will it make a difference in his ranking? And does James want to make a move?
Blake has a winning record against seven top-ten players. Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray rose in the ranks in 2008. Blake defeated Del Potro last in Las Vegas in 2007. And, Blake beat Andy Murray in the round of 32 at the 2006 Hamburg Masters Series. Those are his only encounters with these two rising stars. It's unlikely James would defeat them today.
Blake's record in Davis Cup is impressive. He's 20-9 overall since he was named to the team in 2001. In singles he's 17-8. The United States team won the country's 32nd Davis Cup Title in 2007, its first since 1995. He has honored his country and his teammates. James also played exceptionally well in Beijing, scoring wins over Roger Federer and Gilles Simon -- one of the hottest talents last year. When country pride and teamwork are central to a tournament, James Blake is the man to have on your side of the net.
He broke through his dismal 0-9 record for five-set matches in a night thriller at the 2007 US Open against Fabrice Santoro, too. Since then he's won three of four 5-set matches, bringing his lifetime record to 4-10. Progress can prove slow to some. Perseverance is a positive characteristic for Blake.
But the truth might be that James Blake can't produce better results than the quarterfinals of a major. His play wavers during a match. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground where his consistency is maintained or a change in strategy lifts him past an opponent. He either finds the zone or struggles. His shot selection is right-on intuitive or bizarre, as if he has slipped into another galaxy of tennis.
Only a very few possess the hidden element to win big and often. Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Don Budge, and Rod Laver come to mind on the men's side. Margaret Court, Steffi Graf, and Martina Navratalova come to mind on the women's side.
We wanted to see him in the quarterfinals of this Australian Open. We wanted to see him smile more. There's nothing better than a happy James Blake, given his injuries and courageous comebacks especially in 2004. He could prove all of this wrong at any upcoming tour event. That's the mystery of tennis and competition.