James Blake not ready to retire at U.S. Open
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 12:02 AM
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. - There have been some tennis greats who were so intolerant of the notion of slipping from the sport's elite that they simply retired when confronted with their inevitable decline.
Bjorn Borg comes to mind, walking away at 27, still capable of adding to the 11 major titles he claimed during a brief but brilliant career. Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf retired at their peak, as well, never experiencing what it meant to be average.
At 30, James Blake is taking a different tack, determined to wring the most possible from his career regardless of what the rankings say or his body, with its litany of aches and ailments, tells him.
In 2006 Blake rose to No. 4 in the world and reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, his favorite major, for a second time. The following year he helped the United States reclaim the Davis Cup title.
But having slipped to 108th after idling two months this season with a right-knee injury, Blake needed a wild card to qualify for the 2010 U.S. Open.
Through two rounds, every moment of the experience has been a joy.
"People say I've been struggling and everything, but I'm still having fun," Blake said following his 6-7 (7-1), 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 second-round victory over Peter Polansky earlier this week. "I'm having a great time competing. I still love what I do. And out here [at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center], I love it even more."
Blake's passion-driven run in his 10th U.S. Open may well come to an end Saturday, when he faces third-seeded Novak Djokovic for the right to advance to the round of 16. Mindful of Blake's strong fan support, tournament officials have scheduled the match to open the night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the biggest tennis venue in the world.
Blake hasn't said whether this U.S. Open will be his last or spoken at appreciable length about retirement. Yet one thing is clear: He'll give the best he has to give against the gifted Djokovic, seven years his junior.
"I'm sure if people on the outside are looking at it, you've got to think that he's the favorite," Blake conceded of Djokovic, runner-up to Roger Federer in the 2007 U.S. Open. "If I go out there, and I start dictating, I feel like I have a good shot. But there's also a good shot that he comes out and plays great tennis and proves why he's number three in the world right now."
Unlike many top players, Blake was a bit of a late bloomer, playing college tennis at Harvard before turning pro. He made his mark on the tour playing a high-risk, full-tilt ground game that is best suited to hard courts.
But good results have been more difficult to come by of late, as injury has limited his ability to practice and train, and the lack of training, in turn, has handicapped him in matches.
"Now it takes a lot more work, and there are days when it's just not there because I haven't put in the same amount of time because I haven't been able to," he said. "That doesn't mean I can't go out and play some pretty good tennis at times."
Who knows how far that will take him? Especially with the New York crowd in his corner, where they have steadfastly been these last years.
"When I do come to the Open, there is definitely something different - some memories for me, some good feelings," Blake said. "Just the energy level from the crowd gets my feet moving a little better. When I'm moving my feet, I'm playing some of my best tennis. . . . Once you start getting a couple wins, you really start believing anything is possible."