-- James Blake had been knocked so low by last year's cruel series of events on and off the tennis court that he forgot what it was like to deal with an athletic high. Keeping perspective after achieving something truly great was hardly Blake's concern as his world ranking tumbled from 22nd to 210th after breaking his neck in a freak accident, losing his father to cancer and contracting a virulent case of shingles.
Tuesday at the U.S. Open, Blake learned he can build on success with the best of them as he took his next step -- and a giant one, at that -- back to the sport's elite ranks with a 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 victory over Greg Rusedski of Britain, the 28th seed.
The shift in Blake's fortunes began four weeks ago at Washington's Legg Mason Classic, where he reached his first tour final since 2003. Sunday in New Haven, Conn., he went one better, winning his second title (and first since 2002) as nearly 100 of his closest friends and family members cheered him on. Blake was still riding that high Tuesday when he strode onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium for his first-round match against the hard-serving Rusedski, who had reached the U.S Open final in 1997.
Blake's straight-sets victory was the feel-good story of the day at the National Tennis Center, where top seed and defending champion Roger Federer waltzed past an overwhelmed Ivo Minar of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, to start the day and second-ranked Lindsay Davenport breezed past Na Li of China, 6-4, 6-4, in the evening session.
Blake's victory was hardly as effortless. He fended off one set point in the first set before closing it, 7-5, with a fabulous point that saw him race to the net for a volley, then scramble back to the baseline to retrieve a blistering passing shot. His back to the net, Blake stuck out his racket and ripped a crosscourt, backhand winner.
Facing double-set point in the second set, Blake hit consecutive aces (127 and 130 miles per hour) to get to deuce, then held with another backhand winner.
Chants of "Blake! Blake!" erupted in the 23,00-seat stadium. And they reverberated most loudly from the box that held Blake's closest friends, the ones who had cheered him the previous week in New Haven and, more important, cheered the previous year when he was too sick to pick up a racket. During that stretch when his heart was broken, his face ravaged by shingles and his career in doubt, Blake wondered if he could be happy without tennis or without a clear direction in life.
As he wallowed in doubt, he recalled Tuesday, his friends didn't seem to care about what he lacked or what he had lost. They just wanted to hang out with him, play cards, shoot the breeze and tell jokes -- anything to get him laughing again.
"They're picking me up now when I'm high," Blake said. "They were picking me up when I was low. I don't know how much I can give back to them, but everything I do, it's probably not enough for how much they've done for me."
Blake's friends weren't the only ones cheering his victory. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe was, as well.
"I couldn't be happier for him," McEnroe said. "Forget about my position as Davis Cup captain and a fan of American tennis. After all he went through, to see him out there having success, he deserves this. He's such a great kid."
McEnroe was gratified as well from a technical perspective, applauding Blake's evolution as a defensive player in particular.
"As far as the things that frustrated me about his game, he has completely turned that around," McEnroe said. "He plays within himself. He's playing what I call aggressive tennis within the margins. Rather than just cold-cocking his shots and hoping that two out of 10 go in, he sets them up. He doesn't go for the corner; he goes for a space on the court. And he's using his speed around the court. He can run balls down, and he never did that before, even when he got to 22 in the world."
While Blake's victory left supporters of American tennis awash in good feeling, it was a mixed day for Britain, as 12th seed Tim Henman preceded Rusedski in bowing out in the first round, losing to Fernando Verdasco of Spain, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. Henman was a U.S. Open semifinalist in 2004 but has had a disastrous campaign in Grand Slam events this year, ousted in the second round at Wimbledon and, now, the first round here.
A few weeks shy of his 31st birthday, Henman is no doubt nearing his career's end, as is the 31-year-old Rusedski. So it came as a relief that qualifier Andy Murray prevailed in his U.S. Open debut, defeating Andrei Pavel of Romania, 6-3, 3-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.
It was the first five-set match for the 18-year-old Murray, and he pumped himself with a sodium-laden drink to prevent cramping. But after taking a 2-1 lead in the fifth set, he suddenly felt queasy and vomited during the changeover, which resulted in a 21-minute delay while the court was mopped up and Murray sipped water to settle his tummy.
The episode caused nearly as much commotion among the press corps, as reporters who hadn't witnessed it scrambled to recapitulate it in their accounts of the match. "Was it as bad as [Pete] Sampras?" one asked, referred to Sampras's heave during his 1996 U.S. Open quarterfinal against Alex Corretja.
"Was it projectile?" asked another. "Did it go straight down? Or did it make an arc?"
Murray blamed the drink. "I took too much," he said. "I felt like I was going to burp, and then I threw up."