By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 15 -- James Blake has the Olympic spirit. Or at least he did. He was here Friday, for one thing, still grinding away 10 days and 7,000 miles from the start of the U.S. Open, while many of his highly ranked colleagues, men and women, either chose to skip the Olympics or packed it in early with injuries or uninterested losses. Blake, ranked seventh in the world and unlikely to get much higher, may have looked at this weekend as nothing less than a chance to define his legacy.
Fernando González, ranked 15th, has the Olympic spirit, too, and after beating Blake, 4-6, 7-5, 11-9, in the men's singles semifinals at Beijing Olympic Tennis Center, he will face Rafael Nadal of Spain, soon to be the No. 1 player in the world and a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 winner over Serbia's Novak Djokovic, in Sunday's gold medal match. The flag-bearer for Chile in the Opening Ceremonies, González spoke glowingly Friday of the Olympic ideal of competing for the honor of one's country.
But in a memorable news conference following Friday's bitter loss, Blake called into question the honor, sportsmanship and integrity of González, whom he claimed violated the gentlemanly code of tennis -- as well as the Olympic spirit -- by failing to call a point on himself on a disputed shot during Friday's pivotal third set.
"I've spoken all week about how much I've enjoyed the Olympic experience, how much I love the spirit of it, how much I love the other athletes, what they've sacrificed," said Blake, who will play for the bronze medal on Saturday. "And the [majority of] guys go out and compete their hardest, win fair and square or lose fair and square. [It's] a disappointing way to exit the tournament when you not only lose the match, but you lose a little faith in your fellow competitor."
The play in question occurred with Blake leading 9-8 in the third set and with González serving, both players having held their serves throughout the set. On the first point of the game, Blake hit a backhand that went long. However, Blake contended -- and replays appeared to confirm -- that the ball nicked González's racket, which would have made the point Blake's.
Blake, 28, petitioned Brazilian umpire Carlos Bernardes, who told him he did not hear the ball strike González's racket or see it change direction. And when Blake looked toward González for confirmation, the Chilean did not react.
According to a spokesman for the International Tennis Federation, the dispute "was not a matter for the referee. The umpire did not see the incident clearly, and therefore it was a matter between the two players." Blake essentially agreed.
"Playing in the Olympics, in what's supposed to be considered a gentleman's sport, that's a time to call it on yourself," Blake said. "Fernando looked me square in the eye and didn't call it. I've tried to play this game . . . with integrity, so my parents would be proud of the way I played. If that happened the other way, I never would have finished the match because my father would have pulled me off the court if I had acted that way."
No surprisingly, González said he did not feel the ball touch his racket, though he could not say definitively that it had not.
"We were on the court, like, two hours and a half," said González, the bronze medal winner at the 2004 Athens Games. "I was really tired. I didn't feel anything. . . . If I'm 100 percent sure about it, I will give it. But I'm not sure [in this case], you know?"
Asked preemptively about a potential González denial, Blake, who visited the news conference room first, said: "If he comes in here and says it didn't touch him, I would implore you guys [in the media] and implore him to go and watch the tape, because, yes, I can be 100 percent sure it hit the racket. It's already been confirmed for me by texts from friends back home and people that watched it on TV.
"Whatever he wants to say is fine. Whatever is gonna [allow] him to have some sleep tonight, then that's fine. . . . If you touch it, you know you touched it."
When the match finally ended, with Blake falling in the 20th game of the third set despite saving four match points in the game, the players met for a handshake and Blake had his chance to confront González. However, all he said was, "Congratulations."
"Thank you," González replied.
Until Friday's bitter ending, Blake's week had been nearly transcendent. He immersed himself in the Olympic experience, staying in the Athletes' Village, trading text messages with Redeem-Teamer Jason Kidd, delighting in the sight of a sign on the door to his apartment -- signed by the members of Team Bermuda, his next-door neighbors -- wishing him luck in his match.
And in Thursday's quarterfinals, he beat the mighty Roger Federer for the first time in nine career tries. Perhaps he was beginning to see this as a career-defining, legacy-constructing week, a chance to have his name attached to something historic and meaningful -- Olympic champion -- when his path to other glories, namely the sport's major championships, essentially has been blocked by the likes of Federer and Nadal.
All that could explain why Blake, a mild-mannered sort who rarely displays much emotion on the court, would see González's questionable behavior as an affront to all he believes in -- or as simply the most visible symbol of a crushing loss.
"Maybe I shouldn't expect people to hold themselves to high standards [of] sportsmanship," Blake said. "But . . . we're all competing under the banner of this event to promote sportsmanship, to promote goodwill amongst countries. So yes, maybe I did expect a little more out of the Olympics."