Goodbye to James Blake

The first time attending i was fortunate enough to attend a tennis tournament with press credentials was in 2008 at the Indianapolis Hard Court Championships.  I covered the semifinal and final rounds.  My first match was Gilles Simon d. Sam Querrey 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.  This was a great match to start my press career with as it was close and high quality.  The next match though was the main event.  Dmitry Tursunov was the defending champion, and James Blake was the number one seed.

Blake’s Power was Something to See

I got to watch the Tursunov-Blake match from the press row/front row.  Blake smashed ground strokes and took an early break of serve to a first set victory. The scoreboard said 6-4 to Blake, but the match felt like it was going to be over in a hurry.  A rain delay hit early in the 2nd set.  Tursunov gathered himself a bit, and Blake cooled down.  Tursunov did have to save a break point when serving for the match, but he pulled the upset 4-6, 6-3 , 6-4.

Blake in the Press Conference

James Blake came in and did an interview immediately after the match ended.  He looked disconsolate as well as tired.  He also was polite enough to answer questions right after a close match.  I was impressed with him for being able to do that.  This is not how Cincinnati manages its post-match press conferences, but Indianapolis used to have the loser of the center court match immediately give an interview followed by the winner.  The press just stayed around for a few minutes to get the two interviews, and then it was over.

Blake’s Legacy

James Blake will be missed on tour.  He overcame a freak accident that threatened his career.  That alone casts him as an inspiring player.  He certainly had a legacy match in his 2005 US Open quarterfinal loss to Andre Agassi.  Blake reached the final at Indian Wells, Cincinnati and the World Tour Finals (losing all three to Roger Federer).  He reached 3 Grand Slam quarterfinals (losing two to Federer).  He will be most remembered for being ranked in the top 10 and helping the US win a Davis Cup title.  Blake was more of a Brad Gilbert top 10 player than he was like Andy Roddick or Michael Chang in that those two players reached a number of Grand Slam semifinal and final rounds in addition to claiming a single slam title and a number of Super 9/Masters Series titles.

Still, Blake to me missed out on the assurance of an Olympic medal in 2008 in a controversial loss to Fernando Gonzalez.  Blake finally beat Federer in the quarterfinal round.  Gonzo perhaps benefited from a had a double hit that he did not report.  Blake lost a tight 3 set match shortly after the possible double hit and fumed afterwords.  He then lost the bronze medal match to Novak Djokovic.  Had Blake beaten Gonzo he’d at worst have won a silver medal.  I think that loss hung with Blake for awhile.  By the 1988, 1992 and 2016 Olympic rules, he’d have gotten a bronze medal as both semifinal losers received or will receive a medal.  Timing did not benefit Blake in this case.

Blake played a high-risk game that was impressive, but also had little margin for error.  I think at best he could have become a right-handed hard court version of Thomas Muster.  James Blake did achieve a lot, he carried himself well, he had many memorable matches with a slew of players ranging from Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi to Rafael Nadal and Tommy Haas.  Had he played in an era other than Federer’s, Blake might have gone further in several events.  Still, he achieved a level of success that few US players seem to have an opportunity to duplicate at the present time.  He did so while earning the respect of his peers.  Here’s to James Blake and hoping that he stays involved with tennis.  The sport is better with him than without him.

PS – Here is what I wrote in 2008 

Dmitry Tursunov d. James Blake 4-6, 6-3, 6-4

Weather played a different role in this match. Blake looked imposing in the 1st set as he jumped on 2nd serves and was aggressive throughout. To see the power Blake generates with his forehand up close was a real treat. Tursunov also has an ability to crank his forehand and serve. This match had more of a heavy weight feel to it than did the first semifinal. Blake led 6-4, 1-2 40-15 when a rain delay hit. Tursunov had not played poorly to this point, but Blake was not giving him any room to impose his will on the match. That changed after the rain delay. Blake’s first serve percentage was 40% in the first set and 38% in the second set. Tursunov took better advantage of this and got some deep returns to Blake’s backhand and broke serve to take a 5-3 lead after missing an opportunity to make a similar dent when Blake was serving at 2-3. Dmitry held at deuce to level the match by winning the 2nd set 6-3.

Tursunov took advantage of 3 second serves and grabbed an early break in the 3rd set. The defending champion toweled off after every point in the 3rd set in a smart move to maintain composure. Blake broke back to level the set at 3-3 giving the partisan crowd some optimism, but he then proceeded to miss 7 first serves and was broken in the next game. At 3-3 deuce, Blake double faulted and Tursunov then made sure to return to Blake’s backhand and reclaim a break lead in the 3rd set. Each man then held serve routinely. This left Tursunov serving for the match at 5-4. The final game brought out the best in both men. Tursunov got a 15-0 lead by crushing a forehand. Blake hit two forehand winners en route to earning a break point at 30-40. Tursunov played an intelligent and aggressive point that moved Blake from side to side as Dmitry took the net and put a tricky forehand volley away under pressure. The next two points saw Tursunov hit heavy ground strokes into Blake’s backhand wing to end the match.

Blake and Tursunov: Post Match Interviews

I was surprised to see James Blake sitting down when I entered the interview room less than 1 minute after the match ended. To lose a match and be expected to comment upon it intelligently so quickly thereafter was an inside aspect of tournament play that I was unaware of before today. Blake did not say much and was visibly unhappy with his performance. He repeatedly said he had no idea what went wrong with his first serve, 44% for the match, but he also acknowledged that sometimes a stroke just does not work. While he did not say much, I was impressed that he was able to comment at all so shortly after a tough match. …

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