Monday, January 21, 2008

Blake's Big Breakthrough

Above: James meets an Aussie snake.

James Blake has turned a huge corner in his career, in three important steps.

Step 1. Win a five-set match. Players don't make their reputations by playing great in New Haven. They are made during grand slams and Davis Cup, where the stakes are highest and the matches are long. Going into the US Open, Blake was an appalling 0-10 in five-setters. He broke the streak by beating Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, the stylish, gritty, tricky French veteran that this blog loves.

Step 2. Win an important match in Davis Cup. Roddick carried the US Team for the last five years. Blake was 14-8 in Davis Cup. Pretty good, but he needed to pull his weight against the top teams. Roddick sports a 26-9 singles record,
4th all time for an American. Even better, Roddick is 9-0 in clinching matches, ranking him first among all US singles players, especially when you consider who those other Americans are. For the US to win the Cup, we needed James to win a big match. And he did, beating Mikhail Youhzny of Russia last December. The US won the Davis Cup 

Step 3. Get a signature win. I was like a broken record in 2007 "James Blake hasn't had a signature win yet." For all his spectacular tennis, he went AWOL for big matches and had yet to win a memorable one. Until last week, when he came back from two sets, two breaks down to beat Sebastian Grosjean in five sets. Unbelievable victory. Blake spent the first 2 sets and five games hanging his head, looking testy, doing all that typical Blake stuff that happens when he just checks out mentally. No one thought a comeback was in the cards. He did it, and changed his attitude and game in notable ways. 

First, he didn't rely on emotion to get him back in the match, which was an old trick of his. It's a trick that goes nowhere when you're that deep in a hole. Second, he finally picked his spots, at times anyway. We've all criticized Blake for going for everything on every shot. Why aim for a line when aiming six inches inside the court wins you the point? He had been so stubborn on the issue that the entire tennis world concluded he would never learn. He appears to be getting it.

Most importantly, Blake translated the incredible comeback into a fourth round, straight-set victory over the dangerous newGoran, Marin Cilic. Consolidating a big win with a victory in the next round is often the toughest thing to do.

Blake is a Giants fan who was quite happy with the outcome of the NFC Championship game. He and the Giants are now in the same boat:  trying to stop history from happening. Their opponents are the undefeated Patriots and the-about-to-break-Pete's record Roger Federer.

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