Sep/12

20

The Ups and Downs of James Blake

selection–is still the most electric player in the world.

Has anyone had more up’s and down’s in their career than James Blake? Think about that one. Can you come up with another player? Blake’s career started inauspiciously as he jumped onto the pro tour at 20 after two years at Harvard. He had an infectious game–still does–booming forehand, Roadrunner speed and a “take no prisoners” approach.

But Blake didn’t march right into the top-50. In fact, he didn’t crack that level until he was 22. He had to work his way through the Challengers and he didn’t crack the top-10 until he was 26. He reached a career-high No. 4, but he was out of the Top-10 by the age of 28 and he hasn’t been back inside the top-50 now in more than two years.

Blake breaking into the Top-5 was a miraculous feat. Anyone who has watched him play–and I first got the chance when he was 20 and came to the club I was teaching at, the Doral Arrowwood in Purchase, NY, with his father and Mats Wilander, a friend and hitting partner, to do an article for Tennis Magazine–knows that his game is a mixture of awesome shots and head-shaking mistakes. As Spadea pointed out in “Break Point,” his forehand could be broken down, his serve was erratic and he had little idea of how to work a point.

Amazingly, at 32, Blake is still out there grinding away. He’s No. 137 now and got trounced by Milos Raonic at the Open a few weeks ago, but this week saw him in France to play an indoor event. I saw him play last night, courtesy of the Tennis Channel, against Florian Mayer, who had an awful summer and had never beaten Blake in four matches. Blake won the first set in a breaker, and then proceeded to lose to Mayer, who plays a game that makes one wonder how he ever broke the Top-20. The German is still No. 25, but he has no forehand to speak of and he plays the type of game that is an anomaly to today’s baseline grinder/aggressive style. So does Blake.

But here the thing about Blake. He’s a lot of fun to watch play. He plays as if he is the greatest player ever to pick up a racquet. He does not know the meaning of playing a “safe shot.” He plays like Roger Federer on steroids. The Connecticut flash plays like he has a dinner reservation booked an hour after the schedule time of his match.

The good news is he looks like he’s healthy again after a couple of years of knee problems. The bad news is at 32, it doesn’t seem as if wisdom has infiltrated his game. Blake plays like style and pizzazz points are added to his score with each seismic windup he takes. No one plays a more bold game on tour than Blake. Name one person, he doesn’t exist. But no other player tries the degree-of-difficulty shots as Blake, who then often shakes his head. You wonder if he’s shaking his head because he can’t believe he missed the shot or because he realizes what a numbskull he is to even try such a low-percentage flurry.

Mayer was Blake’s scalp to claim yesterday if he only could’ve pulled back on trying to smash every return of serve and blast every short ball right into the corner of the court. Donald Young, who has now descended into tennis hell with a No. 193-ranking, could learn a lot from Blake on conditioning and heart, but even DY knows how to play a more sensible game than Blake.

I don’t expect the new dad to ever break the Top-50 again. Funny, Blake used to own Mardy Fish, but now Fish is the much more mature player. But for all his flash, forehand drives and lightning net approaches, Blake–until he drives you mad with his shot

30 comments

  • bjk · September 20, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    Rod Laver was in the booth commenting on one of his USO matches with JMac. After a particularly bad error from near the back of the stadium, Laver said “What was that? Did he honestly think that was a good shot?” But his matches with Fed were legendary, especially indoors. Great tennis.

  • Mitch · September 20, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    PMac always used to say during his commenting that James would be much better if only he could be a little more patient. Blake’s rebuttal was that he wouldn’t have achieved as much as he did if not for his over-aggressive play. He obviously was doing something right to crack the top 5, but there are no signature wins or results in the Grand Slams. Some memorable losses though. I guess the truth is somewhere in the middle?

  • Dan Markowitz · September 20, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    Good analyses by both of you, bjk and Mitch. I would’ve loved to hear Laver do tv commentary. What network was he working for during the Open. You think of the longevity of tennis players and it’s pretty impressive. All the old Aussies are still alive except Hoad and Kramer’s still alive, Pancho Segura, believe Budge lived long life. I guess there were some short-lived one’s, too, like Tilden, and Pancho Gonzalez.

    Back to Blake, though, he really does try some way-too-ambitious shots, but that’s why he’s fun to watch for a while and then he keeps on making those shots and you realize, at least now at this stage in his career, he has little chance of beating a top player.

    You know PMac wouldn’t like Blake’s game because he’s not the 35-shot rally guy the USTA seems bent on producing these days. Blake is or was Johnny Mac without the ridiculous touch and net or serve game, but he has a much bigger and dynamic forehand than Mac ever had.

    The matches versus Federer were nice. I recall a couple from China and Indian Wells. Any one particular Blake-Fed match stand out for you, bjk?

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 20, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    I think it’s ludicrous to question Blake’s tactics. The man got to #4 in the world after overcoming the neck injury and illness. I saw his very first singles match at the US Open, he was a wildcard and got trounced by Woodruff on court 7 61 61 61. Multi titles, excellent Master Series results, a win over Fed at the Olympics, some huge wins over Nadal in big events, Gonzo cheated him out of a medal at the OLY. I spoke with his former coach Brian Barker about Blake and Federer and his career best matches, for my Federer book, I will post this article later in the week. Blake is a great player, he played high school tennis in CT, I know a guy who played him in high school. And he made it all the way to the top 5 in the world. Remarkable. And we will never forget his sensational style of play, on the court at his best he reminds me of a swashbuckling sword fighter like Errol Flynn, slashing and slicing always making something happen.

  • Dan Markowitz · September 21, 2012 at 12:18 am

    Scoop,

    Give me one big match he won in a slam. Give me one. I can’t remember any myself. That’s a lot of fruitless slams. I think he reached the quarters in two slams and that’s it. That’s a woeful slam record for a guy who was No. 4. Woeful. There’s no other way to spin it.

    Look at two guys with a similar high ranking, albeit for many more years than Blake, Ferrer and Davydenko. Both of those guys reached 4 or 5 slam semis. Blake not one. You can certainly question his big match record and his playing style with such a bare slam cupboard.

  • Steve · September 21, 2012 at 2:29 am

    Frustrating to watch. Never liked his game. Type of style that is more fun to do than to have to watch or try to coach. He did have the same coach forever if I remember correctly and it shows.

  • Steve · September 21, 2012 at 2:36 am

    If your not-so-secret fav. players are Paes, Blake and Stepanek it speaks volumes.

  • Dan Markowitz · September 21, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Steve,

    Paes, Blake and Steppy aren’t my favorite players, I just like watching them play because they are more aggressive and at least with Blake and Paes, don’t play to a pattern as much as other players. My favorite all-time player, not even close, was Johnny Mac because he played great offense and defense.

    I was watching Monfils play last night against Mahut–nice little event they have down in Metz indoors in France, probably the equivalent of Memphis here in the states–and when he plays aggressive, he’s a lot of fun to watch. But Monfils loves playing cat ad mouse, especially with his fellow French players, and he falls into that callow style of play too much.

    I loved Sampras’s game, especially close up and in person. The power and quickness combination was mind-blowing. Federer is awesome, but it’s like a movie I’ve seen so many times by now. Djoko is like watching a machine, as is Nadal, and Murray’s becoming more and more like that. I’d say the former two or more interesting to watch as they do venture to net more.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 21, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    #4 in the world is a phenomenal achievement Dan, Beating Federer in the Olympics and Nadal twice (once in Masters Cup) in spectacular matches was also a fantastic achievement. Brad Gilbert never made much noise at majors but he got to #4 in the world also. I wouldh’t call BG”s career woeful in any way because of his performances in grand slams. Blake has had an excellent career, he was a star player, the fact that he did not make a major semi is just a sidenote. Blake’s best run was at the US Open, he almost beat Agassi in five and even after the match Agassi said, “I didn’t win (Blake didn’t lose), tennis won.” That was Blake’s opening, that was a heartbreaker to lose. A small part of me will always resent a part of Agassi for winning that match : ) That was Blake’s moment.

  • Steve · September 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Scoop, that’s the kind of match champions find a way to win. #4 is indeed impressive but if BG did it with tactics and no killer shots (well he did have a nice backhand pass)maybe Blake could have stayed up there longer with his weapons with better tactics.

    A whole match of swinging for the fences his ugly tennis unless you’re 100% in the zone.

  • Dan Markowitz · September 21, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    You’re right, Scoop, the 2005 US Open was Blake’s shot. He should not have lost that match to Agassi up two sets to love. He would’ve had Ginepri next in the semis–can you imagine facing a guy like Ginepri these days in a semis?–and then faced Federer in a career-changing finals. But he lost to the 35-year-old Agassi.

    Blake definitely went a lot higher in his career than many thought he would. He has tremendous confidence and drive. At the same time, to use a Spadea phrase, he’s got a little bit of mashed potatoes for brains. He’s too emotional a player, but that’s part of why I like him. That emotion and swing for the fences bravado.

    But Scoop, the guy’s played 39 slams and he’s gotten to the quarters just twice. That’s like Vince Spadea-level, really no higher. Alright, Spadea only got to one slam quarters. Blake did beat Nadal, Moya and Berdych all at the Open, but you look at his Wimbledon and French results in particular, they’re woeful. Only once at the French and only twice at Wimbledon has he ever gotten past the second round, and he never even ventured to fourth round in either event. That’s woeful.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 21, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Steve, Barker told me they felt Blake was not going to win a handsy finesse type style of play, Blake is a Goose Gossage, bring-the-heat, here’s my best shot take it if you can, kinda guy. He’s not Santoro or Rios, carving people up, he’s Thomas Hearns or Mike Tyson. It worked wonders, he made #4 in the world. Think about that. Sure Agassi beat him that night on Ashe, but Agassi was one of the GOAT and he was still very close to his best, remarkably, that US Open fortnight. Blake was just a little off doing what Murray and Del Potro have done, disrupting the ATP elite hierarchy in majors. But not bad for a guy who was never a dominant national junior like Spadea or overcame the back problems as a kid or the fractured vertebrae in his neck and feared me might never walk again.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 21, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Woeful is too harsh a word Dan, you can’t use that adjective in any way relating to Blake. He’s just too good of a player and example. You can’t use woeful to describe Spadea’s slam record or his abysmal loss to Rios 62 60 in the final of St Poelten, he just got beat by a great player on obviously one of his best days. You can’t use woeful to describe the slam records of Monfils, Bagdhatis, Grosjean, Todd Martin or any other fine player who just fell short in majors. Though I would use the word woeful to describe some of our faulty predictions, such as yours with Federer and mine earlier this year saying Serena would never win another major : )

  • Dan Markowitz · September 21, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Now wait a second, Scoop, Rios was not a great player. I mean he was clearly better than Spadea, who only took one breaker set against Rios in five losses. But great players in tennis are defined by what they do in the slams and that’s the only criteria. #1 rankings, Masters, Davis Cup, winning St. Polten, that doesn’t get it done.

    Martin wasn’t a great player either, but at least he reached two slam finals, and should have reached a third. That’s a far cry from Blake’s performance in slams.

    Now, I want to take a poll. Who at Tennis-Prose feels Rios was a great player. Scoop says yeh, I say nay. I want to hear from you people.

  • Steve · September 21, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Scoop, never expected Blake to be a finesse player –that would be silly but even big hitters more often than not have to wait for a winning opportunity and, dare I say it, a short ball. He was in the zone against Agassi at the Open and still lost. I don’t like to watch mindless bashers of the ball and he took that style to the extreme. There’s only a few agressive bashers that win. Even Safin had more patience. He should have imitated him not Santoro.

  • Julian Johnson · September 22, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory takes a certain talent and unfortunately, Blake has it. The ’05 Open is a case in point. He didn’t want it. He destroyed Agassi the first two sets and the match was his for the taking. Yet, rather than take it, he gifted it to his idol. Agassi looked embarrassed after it was over because he knew he was let off the hook.

    Blake’s post match comments stating “if I had to lose I’m glad it was Andre,” said everything that needed to be said. Some people play to win; other to compete. Others to “make a good showing.”

    They show up, they look good, but they don’t want it, “IT” being the title. They want to look and perhaps, be, competitive, but they don’t don’t want to offend – by doing and being more.

    One of the underlying reasons Serena catches flak, I feel, is that she has none of that servile, perpetual understudy attitude in her makeup. The title is HERS; she wants, deserves, needs it, to the exclusion of everyone else.

    The year after the Agassi loss, Blake plays his first round match at the Open, dressed in old school AA attire, complete with head rag. What other tennis player pays homage to a competitor like that?!

    Bill Tilden said that every shot should have a purpose. To hit hard for the sake of hitting hard, when it is not warranted or tactically reasonable is ‘unwise’, to say the least. An intelligent player should understand that there is a middle ground between being a pusher and putting holes in your opponent.

    Brad Gilbert did far more with far, far less, in the power department. He found a way to win, because that was his paramount concern. Blake seems to be more concerned with being well liked and well thought of by his betters, than being better than them – which he has the physical talent to be.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 22, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Well said JJ and thanks for sharing that quote from Big Bill. You definitely summed up Blake but to Blake’s credit he did have that win over Roger in the Olympics and some awfully impressive wins over Nadal, Nalbandian, Agassi, and others. Blake’s heavy hitting style is in a way similar to Berdych and Soderling, it’s just so hard to play that style of offensive tennis and win seven best of 5 set matches at majors. Blake is one helluva a nice guy too, maybe he wasn’t quite mean and ruthless enough to go all the way. There’s no shame in that. Welcome to the site Julian and thanks for your excellent comments.

  • Julian Johnson · September 23, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Was it something I said?!

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 23, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Sorry JJ, I deleted your fine comment by accident, just restored it and responded. Sorry for the unforced error.

  • Dan Markowitz · September 23, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Scoop, Blake isn’t that nice of a guy. He’s a charming guy and he knows how to flash the smile, but he has a divide to his personality. There’s a ruthlessness to him. Didn’t you read “Break Point?” Do you not remember him reaming Spadea out for taking a bathroom break? Yes, Blake had just broken Spadea, but it was at a changeover and apparently Spadea was within his rights to take the break. There was no reason to lash out at Spadea for that, but Blake is easily offended. He likes to be seen as holier than thou and took major offense with Vince for commenting on him in “BP” because Spadea had “never been over my (his) house.”

    Sorry Blake, this is an open pro tour and when writing a book, a fellow pro is free to make comments on your game (he played Blake 9 times–beat him 6 times and up until Vince was 30, he beat him 6 out of 7 times) and how he sized him up in the locker room and at player parties.

  • Krzysztof Sz. · September 24, 2012 at 10:36 am

    First of all, I don’t agree that Blake didn’t have great wins in Grand Slams. He had big win vs Nadal at US Open 2005 (when Nadal was no. 2 in the world), big win vs. Berdych at US Open 2006, huge win vs. Grosjean at Australian Open 2008 (when was 0-2 down and won in 5 sets). Secondly, he had three GS quarters but not two …

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 24, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Blake isn’t perfect, nor can he expected to be. Stuff happens in tennis in the heat of the battle, nobody likes to lose. But in ALL my experiences and conversations with Blake he was a gentleman and a class act. I have big respect for Blake and can overlook a few isolated incidents. I’ve heard stories of Federer being “crazy” in his younger days, so what? Most tennis players have moments they’d wish they didn’t have.

  • Kris Szafranski · September 24, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    I can’t agree that James didn’t have any great wins at Grand Slams as he recorded: great win vs. Nadal at US Open 2005, big win vs. Berdych at US Open 2006 and huge win against Grosjean at Australian Open 2008 when he came from 0-2 sets down.
    Moreover, Blake had three quarters at Slams and not two as it was mentioned…

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 26, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Those were all definitely big wins for Blake, but the Blake critics here only will accept Blake beating Federer or Agassi in a final, it seems, as a “great win.” I agree with you though Krzysztof, Blake was a sensational player and had a terrific,great career in a very difficult era.

  • Dan Markowitz · September 27, 2012 at 3:02 am

    Alright, you’re right, Kris, Blake reached three slam quarters. Big deal, does that make him a remarkable player? Not in my book. Grosjean was like No. 25 when Blake beat him, not a Top-10 player. And Nadal had not made his mark at the Open yet when Blake beat him, ditto Berdych. They’re nice wins, but certainly not seismic.

  • Dan Markowitz · September 27, 2012 at 9:39 am

    In fact, when Blake beat Nadal at the Open in 2005, it was only Nadal’s third Open, he was 19, and it was the first time Nadal had even reached the third round of the Open. Spadea beat him the previous year in Madrid. Basically, Nadal wasn’t Nadal yet, especially on hard courts. So Blake beat him early, doesn’t say a lot. Spadea beat Federer at Monte Carlo, 6-0 in second set when Federer was 18. Was that a great win for Spadea?

    Berdych had never ventured past the Rd of 16 at the Open when Blake beat him in 2006. It was a nice win, but he wasn’t knocking out a contender for the crown. This year was the first Berdy ever played well at the Open. So Blake doesn’t have a real big win in a major.

    He doesn’t have a Spadea beating Krajicek at the French 1,2 and 4 when the Dutchman was No. 5. He doesn’t have a Vince beating Agassi at the Aussie when Agassi was No. 65. He doesn’t have a Vince beating Kafelnikov 2, 4 and 4 at the Open when Yevgeny was No. 7. He doesn’t have a Vince beating Schuettler at Wimbledon when Rainer was No. 8.

    Remarkably, the only top-10 player Blake ever beat in a slam was Nadal when he was No. 2, but had only reached the third round of the Open for the first time. And, he’s only got 3 wins over Top-20 players: Igor Andreev, 19, Berdych, 19 and Alex Corretja, on his way down at No. 14. That is a statistic that confirms Blake’s slam ineptitude. The guy only beat 4 players inside the Top-20. Spadea beat 4 players inside the Top-10.

  • Dan Markowitz · September 27, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Should read that Vince beat Agassi at the Aussie when Andre was No. 6, not 65.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 27, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Vince never beat Federer in the Olympics in straight sets. Vince never got to #4 in the world or the finals of the ATP World Tour Finals. Vince won one career title, Blake won around ten. Vince had a very good career but not near in the same league as James Blake.

  • Dan Markowitz · September 27, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    I’m talking slams, Scoop. Slams! And you can’t refute that Blake never had a big slam win. He beat only one top-10 guy in the slams, and that was Nadal in 06 at the Open where the guy hadn’t excelled yet.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Any win over Nadal is a BIG WIN, especially in a slam that Nadal would later win!

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