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Blake and the Shark 10/13/2009 - 4:44 PM

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By Pete Bodo

James Blake can sure use a good fall season, and the good news for his fans is that the surfaces are Blake-friendly. The players who stand to gain the most in the fall are those who need to make up lost ground, or newcomers whose games are sufficiently matured (Marin Cilic, anyone?) for them to think about padding their rankings and positioning themselves as contenders at the majors next year.

Blake's own position is a kind of sub-category that he shares with guys like Nikolay Davydenko, David Ferrer, Tommy Robredo and a few others. Those are all veterans under stress from younger, talented players stacked up below them. Blake's current ranking is no. 24 - if he's not careful, he may finish with his lowest year-end ranking since 2004). He's an established star here in the US, of course; he can go the rest of his career without winning another match and his name will still be familiar to legions, and he'll be able to capitalize and trade on it for the foreseeable future.

Yet players in his position always need to be somewhat leery about having transcended their identity. Tennis fans forget awfully fast, that's the price you pay in a game that also offers daily, instant gratification in the workplace. There comes a point when even the most successful and well-known of players suddenly realizes that his or her career may be over. Oh, he may tread water on the tour for another year or two; may even generate a few more headlines with a big win here or there. But it eventually becomes clear that the thing he does best, or did best - the thing that enabled him to become a personage - is something he can no longer hack.

And at that point, a sufficiently self-aware player is bound to wonder if he made the most of his opportunities. It's easy to get lost in the funhouse. In a sport that offers a new beginning just about every week, it's hard to see an end to the calendar. But in the end, you're left with a record. Will it have been good enough to make a few Grand Slam quarters (or semis, or, for that matter second rounds, for it's all relative)?  Did you take advantage of every window of opportunity that opened, and pursue your career with a firm grasp of the demands as well as the rewards? Tennis is a game of constant reckonings; it explains why the game is so danged. . . dramatic.

Blake will be 30 at the end of this year. Frankly, I was surprised when I looked up his DoB, because I think of him as at least two or three years younger (and we all know that, in Boris Becker's famous construction, you measure a tennis player's life in dog years). There's a boyishness about Blake; it would be nice to have him around forever, because he's also a decent and thoughtful guy who's been a model professional.

But my feeling that Blake has time left to make another push to bag his first Masters 1000 title, or make a Grand Slam semi or final - maybe even deliver a huge, historic statement by taking a US Open title on that increasingly quick Arthur Ashe Stadium court, is being crowded by the unavoidable question: Can you still count Blake as a contender?

I don't know if Blake asks himself that discomfiting question; it can't be an easy one for a still-young man to pose to the mirror. But Blake has slipped pretty far, so the seeding regimen is starting to really work against him. He suffered first-round losses at two of the four majors this year (Roland Garros and Wimbledon), and lost all three live rubbers he played in Davis Cup.

Blake acquitted reasonably in Australia, although his straight-set loss in the fourth round to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga seemed a little too one-sided. Tsonga is the kind of guy a veteran like Blake has to hold at bay.  And Blake missed a good opportunity by falling to Tommy Robredo in the third-round of the US Open. His best performances were runner-up efforts at Queens Club and Estoril, and  you can even throw in that third-round loss to Roger Federer on the clay of Madrid (what does that tell you about the speed of court in that new Masters 1000 events?).

The most surprising thing about Blake's fall in status is that he doesn't appear to have, or lacks the ability to trade on, his presumed advantages as a seasoned top 10 pro. Maybe that's because he's always flourished with flash and flair, rather than guile and superior craftsmanship. He's playing a young man's game with a slowly aging body, which may make it difficult for him to tap into the residue of his experience.

Many of you are familiar with the colloquialism, Jump the Shark. Despite its flossy origins, it's a useful concept and it seems to have real applications in tennis. If Blake doesn't halt his present slide, I'll probably stick with the idea that he jumped the shark back in the summer of in 2007, when he lost the Los Angeles final to Radek Stepanek. I criticized Blake on this page after that loss (I said that if you're Blake, you just can't lose that match - not if you have higher aspirations than Blake  had already realized).

When I next saw Blake, he let me know how he felt about my comment (it wasn't very good) analysis. Well, losing a match to a player of Stepanek's caliber is nothing to be ashamed about. But Blake's results since he missed that opportunity to win a significant title, on what can be described as a home court with all its attendant advantages, have been mediocre. He faltered in the fourth-round of the next US Open that summer, and hasn't been to a major quarterfinal since. The real question became not whether or not Blake can win a big one, but,  Does he even care?

Apparently he does; that's probably one reason he recently finally decided to replace the only full-time coach he's ever had, Brian Barker (Kelly Jones has been traveling with Blake since the US Open). As Blake told Bonnie Ford of ESPN a few days ago: "(Brian and I are) still good friends, which will never change. Right now we both feel like I need to hear some things from a different voice. Kelly's been close to both of us for a long time, and he's a perfect fit for now. If things go well with him, everyone's happy. Brian wants nothing but the best for me. If they don't (work out), then I go back to Brian and we know there's a reason I'm back. It was just time to take a little break and see how it goes with someone else.''

Barker also downplayed the significance of the change: "I told him (Blake) that the most important thing in his tennis career is to have a clear head and peace of mind for the rest of your life that you did everything you possibly could to get better, maximize your potential and not leave anything on the table. He eventually agreed that was a good idea."

The coach also stressed that Jones doesn't represent a sea change, philosophy-wise. He said that Blake would be "hearing the same thing in a different way." I'm not sure if this was a vote of confidence in the way Barker and Blake approached tennis as much as an effort to short-circuit any notion that this change is like an SOS tapped out by a nearly tapped-out player. Blake might be better off hearing different things than he's heard all these years, like that he needs to modulate and diversify his game, that he needs to be more open to playing a more aggressive return game, or live or die less by his first serve.

In tennis, you learn never to underestimate a popular, successful 30-year old's sense of immortality. Blake is still a young guy who, except by the most exacting of athletic standards, is still approaching the peak of his general powers. Other opportunities have opened to him, and he's mature enough to know their value and have an interest in them (as in the case of his charitable work on behalf of cancer awareness). This is a guy who could have a career in politics (just read his press transcripts). But if he's coming into his own as a man and citizen, it's happening at a time when tennis is about to pass him by - an awkward case of ships passing in the night if ever there was one, and a legitimate source of worry.

Blake hasn't hit his peak, maybe not even in tennis. For there has to be some net loss or gain when you weigh the enthusiasm, impetuosity, and power of youth against the power of experience, and mental and emotional maturity. But you need to tap into those reservoirs of knowledge and experience, you need to be able to take advantage of what they have to offer in a direct way, in your game. But remember, Blake was a late bloomer as a tennis player; perhaps that also gives him a later "use-by" date. The real issue here is how to make the transition from young turk to savvy veteran.

Perhaps most of all, this probably is the time when Blake needs to ask himself,  Do I still have one more push left in me?  I have a feeling that he's done that; it would certainly help explain the late-career coaching change, and even the way Blake and Barker chose to handle it. Blake has always been prudent and tactful, qualities that have hurt as well as helped him. He's never really been a risk taker, although he's played a game based on taking risks.

I get the feeling that's what he most needs to do now: take some risks with his approach to the game, tell himself that the end of his career is near, it's time to pull out all the stops. Scaling back his relationship with Barker probably is a step in the right direction, but it's just a first step.


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Posted by gliciouss 10/13/2009 at 04:56 PM

first

Posted by CiCi 10/13/2009 at 04:59 PM

hopefully 2010 will bring a career resurgance with better slam results and a couple of titles in between

it's odd to think of Sam Querrey as America's number 2

Posted by TennisFan2 (go Red Sox!) 10/13/2009 at 05:03 PM

I think it's time for Blake to hit the booth - he is very well spoken and would be great on tv. He doesn't seem to have the fire in his belly on the court.

Posted by TennisFan2 (go Red Sox!) 10/13/2009 at 05:04 PM

I guess it's time to take off the "go Red Soc."

Posted by Great-FedFan 10/13/2009 at 05:15 PM

i think he is a talented, intelligent guy who can make a real contribution to society. He can be a role model to the troubled, black youth in the N.E by working for a social service outfit or the U.N or other international organizations. As an aside, I think the game of tennis has changed so much with all the youngsters and the powerful grinding athletes from Spain. It is not a game of finesse and elegance anymore much as Federer would want it to be. Blake's game is somewhere between Federer's and the Spanish style and his chances of winning any major event are somewhat slim I'd say.

Posted by Master Ace 10/13/2009 at 05:21 PM

I feel that James have 2 years max to get some good results before he calls it a career. Now, if he can somehow beat Rafael tomorrow, that may be the spark he needs. Also, most people may feel that James is a year or two too late in making a coaching change.

Posted by Ivo 10/13/2009 at 05:22 PM

As for me, James Blake has been always someone I enjoyed to watch. A very likable personality, a very likable style of game. And yet, despite Blake being obviously on the smarter side of the tennis continuum as far as player's off court intelligence, I have not been able to appreciate this when he plays. There's something missing in his game which separates him from those who win big matches - his game is somewhat predictable, his shots are clean and pretty but somehow leave me with a feeling of "missing a soul". Or maybe not "seoul", but he seems not to be cunning on the court. He rushes the issue when he is not supposed to, he goes for the big swings which often do not pay out. He does not manage to push his opponents mentally. I mean just thinking of Del Potro's demeanor this year at the U.S. Open in the final: what a fox...he definitely managed to get under Federer's skin during the game....and that even though Federer was pretty much dominating him in the first 1,5 sets. I have never felt that James managed to do that with other people - he's a beautiful player to watch, a hard worker...but a bad tactician and strategist. As if intelligence off the court had nothing to do with smartness on the court...or put it differently: being smart on the court can have something more to do with being a die-hard competitor than with you LSA scores.


Posted by John P. McEnroe 10/13/2009 at 05:43 PM

Pete - As much as I enjoy your posts, I am sorry to have to offer some disagreement with some of your comments re James Blake. James is a wonderful ambassador for our sport, a gentleman on and off the court and an exemplar for young players. He is, however, no longer, in tennis terms, a young man.

In my view, James will never return to the top ten, never win a 1000 series, although that is possible, and certainly will not be a Grand Slam finalist or winner.

I wish I didn't believe all this, but I do. Best to you and all you followers.

JP

Posted by CL 10/13/2009 at 05:52 PM

"James, James, Morrison, Morrison, Wetherby George Dupree" has never been down to the end of town, a GS there to see.

But I think it is important to remember that James missed 2 (?) years from what have been the meat of his career due to injury and illness.

Posted by L.Rubin 10/13/2009 at 06:08 PM

"James is a wonderful ambassador for our sport, a gentleman on and off the court and an exemplar for young players."

Just as you once were, Mr. Mac!

Posted by Diane(Atlanta) 10/13/2009 at 06:09 PM

Mr McEnroe,
I so agree with you about James; every time I watch his matches I want to scream "go back to Harvard and finish your degree". I feel that's where his future lies, not in tennis.

Posted by darthhelmethead 10/13/2009 at 06:12 PM

Now I love James Blake. I got his autograph and fresh sweat from the tennis court marking the inside cover of a copy of Breaking Back. I've gone to the New Haven tennis tournament for years and enjoyed seeing him play. But to be honest, I just don't see him making a realistic push at a major. Another quarter final or even a semi? Absolutely, but he will probably never be thought of as a real contender ever again. The age of Blake has come and gone, and like all players he has lived and died by the narrowest of margins that separate the great from the good.

Posted by Andrew Friedman 10/13/2009 at 06:12 PM

Pete,

Brian Barker made a comment to me a few years back (as many here know, I collaborated with James on his memoir, Breaking Back) that one of the more unusual things about James' tennis evolution, dating back to high school, was that he would plateau for a time, then suddenly have a huge surge of improvement. This happened a number of times during his career, most dramatically of course in 2006, when he finished the year ranked 4 in the world. Many forget that, prior to his career-threatening illness in 2004, he had never gotten out of the 20s.

Can he surge again? Who knows - but I can't imagine a coaching change at this late career stage without something like that in mind. Remember also that, as we wrote in the book, that improvement was prompted by a nagging sense of under-achievement just prior to his neck injury in '04.

Incidentally, I always felt that Brian Barker was unfairly maligned by many observers - James got to number 4, during the Fed-Nadal era, under his coaching. That's about as good as any player managed during those years.

Posted by Tim (Year of Red Rogie ) 10/13/2009 at 06:13 PM

geez cant Blake play a few more years before he does what everyone else in the world can do, finish your degree, how many can play big matches on the center courts of the world??

now maybe he can knock Rafa off and get some fuel for 2010...

Posted by Aubrey 10/13/2009 at 06:20 PM

Is that the real Johnny Mac posting upthread?

Posted by Kofi 10/13/2009 at 06:22 PM

Thanks for the post, Pete, about a player I really like both on court (even if he used to torture us Nadal fans some time ago --and I'm sure tomorrow too) and as a person (from the few details I know about his biography).
I was sorry to read Blake felt bad about your comments. Sometimes it is easy to be hard on someone dedicated to such a difficult task as top competitive sport, as it is almost impossible to determine if someone has used his talents well, so caution with statements on the above is a good idea.
As for assessing Blake's persona and remaining tennis potential, I fully agree with McEnroe (even if I don't know him closely like he does... but I guess it's a law of life operating here).

Posted by skip1515 10/13/2009 at 06:26 PM

A. I like James Blake, as much as you can like any professional athlete you don't know personally. He is thoughtful, hard working and articulate, and clearly possesses a sense of the world that encompasses more than the boundaries of a tennis court.

B. For some time now, watching Blake's matches has been a maddening exercise. "Live by the sword, die by the sword" might be a romantic mission statement, and it has real value for someone like Ivo Karlovic, but Blake's talent has always been broader than Karlovic's, and it's frustrating to see him lose so many points unnecessarily.

C. As I see it, Blake's always had two weapons: his shotmaking and his wheels. I have no doubt Blake can modulate his game, technically, and lengthen the type of points he has so often lost when he pulled the trigger too early. Whether his 30 year old wheels can keep him attacking successfully against heavier, steadier hitters is the real question.

D. This column/post/article does a great job of distinguishing the difference between a sports journalist and a fan. Thanks.

Posted by L.Rubin 10/13/2009 at 06:37 PM

Skip1515,

Good points. Blake is an exciting player, and it's a shame. really, that he has yet to capture a title of some heft. Your expression--"live by the sword, die by the sword"--summarizes his playing mentality well, even though I always preferred the far simpler "macho."

I note in passing, too, that I became a Blake fan right after I read that he wore a back brace during his adolescence. I also wore one of those monstrosities (for severe scoliosis), and anyone who goes through that particular hell deserves to win an effing USO!

--Liron

Posted by Ruth 10/13/2009 at 07:02 PM

Liron: When, several years ago, I read about Blake's scoliosis as a youth and the 23-hour-a-day back brace, it helped me to understand the reason for his odd posture which I used to wonder about, and, more important, it earned him my undying admiration as I thought of the wilanders it must take for a young guy who had gone through that to have the audacity to say, "I'm going to be a professional athlete!" Amazing!

I wish James well as he enters what is clearly the last -- and, possibly, the most rewarding and enjoyable -- stage of his career.

You go, James!

Posted by beth 10/13/2009 at 07:10 PM

Aubrey - that is indeed the real John McEnroe , Sr
the father of Patrick and John McEnroe
he has posted here before

and in the analysis of James Blake
I am in complete agreement with Mr McEnroe
James is a wonderful young man - handsome and articulate
but he is not young in the tennis world - I don't see him winning
a big one at this point in his career either
He can still win a good match or two - but probably not 6 or 7 in row that it takes to win one of these major tournaments

I just hope he does not beat Rafa , Tim :)

Posted by Heidi 10/13/2009 at 07:27 PM

Pete, it made me laugh when I saw that you always think of James as a few years younger -- because he and I are the same age. Classmates and all that. And speaking of still being young, I know I am (we are), but I wish I could fall asleep on an airplane the way I could when I was 21. That being said, the physical side has never been Blake's problem, unless you really believe that his problems this year have ALL been due to nagging injury.

The question has been for so many years whether Blake has the fire in the belly, the motivation, etc., etc. I remember McEnroe charitably saying that Blake, after his father's death, just had too much perspective on life, too much of that "it's just a game." That might be so, but an athlete needs to be able to compartmentalize. Sounded like a recommendation to get a sports psychologist to me. I forget who recently said he needed Agassi's on-court patience; was that you, Pete? Either way, I'd agree that it really does sound like he needs a change of perspective, but doesn't sound like this coach is that, sadly.

Posted by John 10/13/2009 at 07:29 PM

"If he can beat Nadal tomorrow".....it could be pretty bad, that means Nadal still is "out of game"

Posted by Ruth 10/13/2009 at 07:43 PM

John: Does that mean that Nadal was "out of game" the three times that James beat him? Well, maybe, Nadal was just too young then. So, now that Raf's's in his prime and James is old, let's prepare for the beatdown of James by Nadal tomorrow --or tonight??

Hello, heidi...nice to see you here.

Posted by Heidi 10/13/2009 at 07:47 PM

Hey Ruth! I still drop by from time to time... but I seem to have very bad timing. Often I'm commenting on one of Pete's post down page five, or something. Hope all's well.

Back on topic: incidentally, I don't disagree that Blake will never win a Slam. But I think he could certainly have a better record than he's had so far this season, really play up to his potential.

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 10/13/2009 at 08:00 PM

great article on James, one of my favorites. I'll never forget when he made his first big breakthrough at the USO. He was the first ever player that I remember wearing those sleeveless shirts. I didn't realize he'd made it all the way to number 4 (no small feat) before his accident and I do think it's a pity he lost 2 peak years to his injury. So I hope he hangs in there for a couple of more years to make up for the ones he lost. And he brings alot to the sport we love. I really wish him the best.

Posted by John 10/13/2009 at 08:09 PM

Ruth, Nadal was very young at that time and not too good playing on HC like later he was playing, huge difference!!!

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 10/13/2009 at 08:14 PM

so i was wrong. He was ranked #4 in 06 after his accident!

Posted by EmCee 10/13/2009 at 08:22 PM

Long time lurker, first time commentor. I agree with Mr. Mac, Sr and with Pete. First met James in 2001 & 2002 at a Challenger in Birmingham where I was a volunteer. Great young man. Very dedicated. Like him lots. Brother Thomas came two years also. Ditto for him. More extroverted. And hilariously funny. James takes a bit longer to open up.
I would suggest that James has perhaps exceeded the limitations imposed on him with his scoliosis and has triumphed. It may be that he has a shorter career span as a world class athlete because of the scoliosis. Heard an orthopedic surgeon discuss that very thing not long ago. I don't think James would ever admit that has been any kind of issue. No excuses.
Regardless he is the absolute finest example of what a professional athlete should be. I wish him only the best. It would be neat to see him get into the top 10 again and prove us all wrong.
Or maybe I'll live long enough to vote for him for President of the US one day!

Posted by Andrew Miller 10/13/2009 at 08:29 PM

I dont see why James Blake cant make a couple of exceptional big runs at big tournaments. It will take major shifts, but Federer and Nadal and Roddick and Del Potro and Murray all made those shift, so I dont see why Blake, who may be too intelligent for his own good, cant.

So let's see what the hard work does for the guy.

My observation is improvement plus talent equals results. Andy Roddick, who some journalists (Matt Cronin) did not believe would get back to the top 5, proved all wrong with his consistent changes in routine. We can all agree that Andy Roddick has earned better results, 2006-2009, than most players and earned his way back into the contender category at every slam outside of Paris.

We can all agree that James Blake is one of the most talented players, but in the last few years (since 2007) not one of the most improved (his improvement took place from 2006-2007, with a couple nice results since then but nothing stunning (the win over Federer at the Olympics the exception)).

So why not. Other players had big runs who had less talent than James Blake. A few good draws, plus some big improvement and a steady game plan, could do wonders for Blake. Now, he can definitely get the breaks of good draws.

So the big question: will this guy EVER develop a game plan and some consistency? I rarely see smart tennis from James Blake - he does not play up to his very high IQ. His forehand is harder than anyone out there, but his game plan is weaker than any out there. That's why I dont doubt that he has the talent to do it, but he lacks the consistency.

There you have it. James Blake lacks the most boring aspect of being a tennis champion: getting the ball in play, over and over again, to spots on a court that exploit the opponent's weakness.

When James Blake discovers strategy, he could certainly be a contender.

The question is whether that discovery (strategy plus consistency) will ever develop anywhere beyond theory.

Posted by JAG 10/13/2009 at 08:31 PM

Aubrey - I belive that is "Daddy Mac" :)

http://www.paulweiss.com/lawyers/detail.aspx?attorney=327

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/13/2009 at 08:36 PM

Nice post, Pete. I think James Blake's "failures" as a player are due in part to his personality, hius expectations as a yo9ung man., and his life-changing accident and subsequent illness, capped by his father's death. I mean, these are all big big life events, and James bounced back stronger and more focused than he had ever been. And more committed to Davis Cup, too, which is saying something about a man who's always answered the call from PMac.

He's one of those guys who never thought he'd be making a living playing on the pro tour, as much as he might have dreamed about it. He seems to me to be quite content to have made it this far, to have survived some tough times and come through with his priorities in order.

Something you write here made me pause:
"Blake might be better off hearing different things than he's heard all these years, like that he needs to modulate and diversify his game, that he needs to be more open to playing a more aggressive return game, or live or die less by his first serve."

That he needs to play a more aggressive return game? Apart from clay, which is his kryptonite, whenever I've seen Blake play, his aggressive returns have been like his signature. That forehand is legendary, of course, but few guys (maybe Wawrika) can clock a one-handed backhand return on the rise like Blake, and do it consistently, and in the clutch. Perhaps making it a key component of his strategy, yes.

But let's fac e it, in today's game, which has become a truly defensive endeavor, Blake's style just is too fraught with risk and error. Even though he's got some of the best, if not the best, wheels in the game, his footwork is a little lacking and he has never learned how to or been willing to grind out points or chip away at his opponent's will by being tenacious and giving him no real estate to safely hit into.

Perhaps, in the end, it's a failure to see his game as it really is, and to expand that vision to take full advantage of his most distinguishing gift -- his wheels. Then, too, he has a tendency to hang his head when he's misfiring a bit, and that alnmost always leads to the wheels of his game falling right off.

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 10/13/2009 at 08:40 PM

EmCee: enjoyed your post. and James' brother is really gorgeous too!

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/13/2009 at 08:46 PM

"He is thoughtful, hard working and articulate, and clearly possesses a sense of the world that encompasses more than the boundaries of a tennis court."

Spot on, skip. Couldn't have said it better.

Posted by Andrew Miller 10/13/2009 at 08:49 PM

I find it fascinating that, given how many players OVER AGE 30, have been earning grand slam semifinals or better, that there can even be room for debate as to whether a player at 30 can be a contender at a major.

Let's get this straight: any player that makes a semifinal of a grand slam, whatever the age, has a chance to win. That's why they are in the semifinals - to win.

So let's look at a few players, over age 30, who have been populating the semifinals of grand slams not too long ago.

Andre Agassi (won AO at age 32 (2003); US Open final at age 32 (2002), semifinalist at 33 (2003), quarterfinalist at 34 (2004), finalist at age 35 (2005))

Rainer Schuettler, age 32 - Wimbledon Semifinalist (2008)

Jonas Bjorkman, age 34 - Wimbledon Semifinalist (2006)

Tommy Haas, age 31 - Wimbledon Semifinalist (2009)

So - you may argue "Haas and Agassi arent normal players." Fine - I will give you that.

But what about Bjorkman and Schuettler? Is James Blake "worse" talent wise than those guys?

NO.

Blake is a better player. There's no reason, theoretically, that he cant do it.

The only real reasons? Blake's strategy is awful, his consistency is wanting.

So if he does do what Heidi suggests (channel some Agassi) it will be a good set of assaults on slam titles. Otherwise, it will be "go for broke" which to me is awful.

It's hard to watch Blake play because he can lose 6-2, 6-1 as easily as he can win 6-4, 6-2. That's how shaky his tennis is.

Posted by Andrew Miller 10/13/2009 at 09:02 PM

Sorry, James Blake is better served on the tennis court than in diplomatic circles. Being # 24 in the world and making a late career run will do more for James Blake in his future career than leaving the sport cold now would do.

What a joke. I think if someone were to ask James Blake now, "so, you've slipped, why dont you go back to Harvard and finish your studies?"

At 24 in the world? No way. Not if I just got a set off of Rafa Nadal last week and have another shot at him tonight in China - I definitely would not turn that down. Trust me: I live in Cambridge, MA, home of Harvard, and it is darn cold here at the moment. I would much prefer being #24 in the world with a shot at Nadal tonight, in China, than to be mulling through a problem set for a class.

Blake said he'll go back to school, and having seen his brother around the northeast, I have no doubt he will go back and get a degree and then do whatever. But you just cant replace playing on the world stage and having a shot at the #2 player in the world -

My advice to Blake would be to keep at it and make adjustments, make an assault at Slams and remember he is a tennis player first, diplomat second. Federer could have gone the ambassadorial route but he said,

heck no: "I will be the best player of all time, I will make the adjustments, and I will come out on top."

Who can argue that his last 6 slams have NOT been the most interesting for Federer? I would say they have made Federer's career even sweeter. Federer's comeback has breathed a new dimension into tennis - before it was the pax-Federiana, then it was Nadalmania, and then it was Federer's quest to reclaim the crown.

It's been thrilling.

Who has not been impressed by Andy Roddick dusting himself off and making big runs again at the slams?

A year that saw another Grand slam semifinal, a first-ever 2nd week appearance at roland garros, a wimbledon final, and a 3rd round flame-out at US Open (by 2 points in the fifth set tiebreak).

Please. Blake will learn more by giving himself more chances. The better he does now, the better he will do later. You dont want to leave the game without answering questions.

Mr. McEnroe's sons did just that - John McEnroe made late career runs, and Pat McEnroe suffered at the hands of another over-thirty player....

Jimmy Connors, age 38.

So please...let's take age out of this and all the fuss over Blake's diplomatic future. I am sure he would be flattered, but if you ask him what's on his mind right now, I bet it would be putting together a good match vs. Rafael Nadal.

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 10/13/2009 at 09:13 PM

andrew: so true what blake is thinking about right now: beating rafa. Rafa was interviewed before beijing and was asked who is toughest opponent was. His answer: Bagdhatis! the guy he was playing in the first round.

We forget that these guys think differently than we do.

Posted by Susanna728 10/13/2009 at 09:14 PM

My problem with James is that he hardly ever seems like he's enjoying himself on the court. At least half the time he looks miserable out there. Because of that, even if he's making some of his stunning shots, his game is not that fun to watch.

Posted by Ruth 10/13/2009 at 10:23 PM

Thanks to the two Andrew's for bringing some additional balance and realism to the discussion.

I find the assumption that Blake, by being 30, is now over the hill as ridiculous as the assumption that a player (usually the comments are directed at women players) who is carrying a few extra pounds is de facto unfit.

When I see evidence that a player has lost a step or more, that he/she huffs and puffs after short rallies, that he/she finds it difficult to run down balls, that is the time that I will say that age (or a lack of fitness) is affecting his/her game.

I have seen none of these negative signs in James Blake, so I really odn't expect age (and the problems that often come with it) to represent the mountains that he will have to climb in this new stage of his professional tennis career. Again, I wish him all the best.

Susanna728: I agree with you about James's demeanor on court; he too often shrugs and looks downcast and discouraged when things are not going his way. I've never liked that aspect of his on-court behavior. If he could eliminate that one annoying habit, I would be thrilled.

Posted by Tim (Year of Red Rogie ) 10/13/2009 at 10:46 PM

funny how over the hill Blake pushed Rafa to an almost 3 hour match all of ONE week ago... wake up people, Rafa has to work his buns off to beat 30 year old Blake, hows that for reality?

Posted by Andrew Miller 10/13/2009 at 10:59 PM

Ruth, Slice-n-Dice, Susana and Annie: I totally agree with every point you made (re: James Blake not playing "positively", letting opponents into the match through his shrugging and poor body language, not using his wheels "enough" and making speed the cornerstone of his game [he simply gets to balls SOONER than other players - that is a huge competitive advantage]).

I just dont see why Blake cant make more big runs with adjustments he is capable of making with the correct support, coaching and training. It's like asking Blake to avoid the late-career collapse of Marcelo Rios, whose on-court, low-energy demeanor, more than anything, doomed his many ball-striking talents. Marcelo Rios will go down as the third-best Chilean player in the modern era, behind Fernando Gonzalez and Nicholas Massu's first-ever olympic gold medals for Chile, because their results and attitudes, rather than talent alone, were better in the long run. By right, Marcelo Rios should have been the top South American player of the modern era, but ceded that honor to one Brazilian and three Argentine players (Gustavo Kuerten, Juan Martin del Potro, Gaston Gaudio, and David Nalbandian's achievements all trump those of Rios).

It shows the danger of playing negative tennis (self-destructing, rather than opportunity-creating).

So, I hope he can take advantage of those considerable gifts and add to them with more skills and more consistency.

Posted by John 10/13/2009 at 11:08 PM

Wake up Tim!!!!, you have too many nightmares with Nadal, I'm starting to feel sorry for you

Posted by jb 10/13/2009 at 11:09 PM

i was wondering if anyone would write something about james and brian 'splitting'.

i look at james and think there's NO reason for his current ranking; he shouldn't be losing the matches he is. Unlike other players, i've always felt that james loses matches not because of talent (or lack thereof) but the mental part of his game.

i do really hope that kelly can bring another layer, dimension, weapon to james' game.

Posted by Tim (Year of Red Rogie ) 10/13/2009 at 11:11 PM

lol that comment was about Blake, the man of the hour, and its totally relevant is it not? they played one WEEk ago, and theyre playing again tonight... wake up John and keep up with the conversation! lol

Posted by Andrew Miller 10/13/2009 at 11:12 PM

My last comment for the night: Andre Agassi won half of his grand slams after age 29 and played his most inspired tennis from age 29 to age 36.

He had this to say in 2006 after losing his final match at Wimbledon:

"Q. It's reasonable to believe that he's going to get even better on grass as he plays more and more on it. Is it too early to think what a lot of people might have thought was unthinkable before this tournament, that he could actually challenge Roger Federer on a grass court?
ANDRE AGASSI: How do you say he couldn't, or anybody really at that matter? I mean, listen, we all marvel at what Roger has done, there's no question, none more than me. I watch him play and have an appreciation for it from not just the stands but also the best seat in the house, which is the other side of the net. So I've admired it and all that.
But, you know, if tennis was as easy as phoning in the results, you know, I would have just called in a win today against Nadal, you know. Just doesn't happen that way. You have to come out; you have to do it. That's one thing that I keep speaking to in competition, you know. The competitor's heart and mind leave a lot of room for a lot of things that we might think is crazy to happen. "

Posted by Jenn 10/14/2009 at 12:42 AM

Hi everyone. Pete, good to see a post on James, a player who has really slipped off the radar screen in terms of relevance at major events. Who knows how he would honestly answer some of your questions, but the fact that he finally changed coaches after all of these years is a sign that is does want to make that one last push. I think that his refusal (or perhaps simply his failure) to make any adjustments to his tactics even when those tactics are getting him ushered out of majors by lesser players, has had the appearance of a sort of apathy about winning. While I don't think that is the case, it has made him an incredibly frustrating player to watch and root for.

I wish James all the best and hopefully this will give him a spark for a late career surge. But I would have to agree with Mr. McEnroe, I don't see him getting back to the Top 10 or winning a major. But I think one of these late season Masters, particularly in the absence of Federer, is within his grasp.

Posted by Jenn 10/14/2009 at 12:52 AM

Andrew M. - thanks for posting those comments by AA. I think they are right on. There is no way to overestimate the "heart and mind" factor in the game of tennis, particularly at the highest levels. It truly is, IMO, what seems to separate the guys at very top from other Top 10/20 players.

Posted by Ade 10/14/2009 at 12:55 AM

Blake plays a terrific "one dimensional" game, but in my opinion, a player always reverts back to what they are the most comfortable at, Blake usually reverts back to hard hitting the ball. Another example is Nadal who often reverts back to standing a mile behind the baseline.

Having the best techniques early on is the ingredient for a great champion. Sometimes, it's too hard to change in the later years.

Although it seems these guys try to change it up at different times, Blake seems to keep powering that ball. We'll still be waving to Nadal, a mile away back......it will be fun to watch tomorrow.

Posted by david 10/14/2009 at 01:34 AM

Did nadal dye his hair and eyebrows black?
kinda looks like it on the front page of tennis.com

Posted by Brian 10/14/2009 at 01:52 AM

I'm a big fan of Blake and hope he can turn things around a bit. I do like Nadal a bit more, so I'm hoping that this transition starts after today, but noentheless, I want nothing but the best for Blake. He is a stand-up guy and an entertaining player when he is playing to his potential. I don't know if he's playing any more tournaments before Paris, but I hope he can pull out a win or two next year (I don't think he has what it take to win a Masters Series or Slam anymore at this point, but there are a lot of smaller tournaments out there for the taking)

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Me likey the Asian Swing 10/14/2009 at 05:52 AM

Thanks Pete,

When I heard that James had changed coaches I must say the first thing that came into my head was "why now at 28 years of age"?

James has always been a solid player.Though to me sometimes one dimensional,things go wrong he just belts the ball even more.

Though when I saw him playing his first match at Shangai,I was surprised.He had control more on his shots and a lot more patience.His serve was effective too.What a difference a week makes hey?

Though I concur with you James will never win a Master Series or even a GS title.I dont think he has those extra tools in his game. Though to his credit if he feels he needed a change,well its as good as a holiday some might say.

James has always been a great role model for the game.

I wish him success.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Me likey the Asian Swing 10/14/2009 at 05:55 AM

oops my bad.Meant to say at age 30! not 28.Pete I fell into the same trap as you lol!

Posted by kudz 10/14/2009 at 06:02 AM

yes, but blake's an american, unlike those unheroic europeans he can have a frank discussion with himself and turn it all around!

Posted by Kofi 10/14/2009 at 06:43 AM

LOL!
Ok, if I can serve as an example, I am European and it is true!, I have to admit I don't normally have conversations with myself that I can recall... How about you North-american TWibers?
Re: James, when I agreed before that he will win no GS or Masters due to the laws of life, of course I meant chances are small, but not fully impossible. And I fully agree playing the best players in the world on central courts around the globe and occasionally beating them for another couple of years is worth and exciting enough to let Harvard and even the 'Presidency of the United' states wait, without a shade of a doubt!

Posted by Kofi 10/14/2009 at 06:46 AM

I meant 'Presidency of the United States'.

Posted by Sliceman 10/14/2009 at 07:00 AM


I don't think many people outside of the US would give Blake much chance of winning a masters yet alone a slam, nice man and entertaining player that he undoubtedly is.

Of his 10 titles to date only one has been at the 500 level and all his titles are limited to hard courts. Blake's career has been hit (like many others) by Federer, who has beaten him in a masters cup final and two masters finals. The difference between Blake's potential gains in a Roger-less world and Andy Roddick’s alternative timeline as a multiple slam winner highlights, imo, that Blake has never been top tier – that is a contender for majors.

I saw him play Murray at Queens this year and, despite flashes of brilliance (I was cheering for him because I like his style a lot), my lasting impression was he didn’t have the consistency of game to take on the Scot.

A freak opening of a draw would be Blake’s chance of a masters (how many top 16 players could he beat in a row?), forget about a major.

I love the quote from Andre Agassi in Andrew Miller’s post, although any comparison of Blake to Agassi is bizarre in my view. Agassi won 6 of his 8 slams (including the career slam) before 30 and as a great player had the strength to win two more Oz opens and contend at others majors too. Diminishing returns is the norm after 30, and Blake is descending from a much smaller hill. Of course Roger Federer will be a contender for a major at 30, James Blake is not because he never was more than a outside chance in his prime.

As for the post 30 Wimbledon semi finalists Andrew mentions in an earlier post, I think the fact they achieved this on grass is significant as experience on this surface is important, as the grass season is so short in the modern tennis calendar.

Posted by RacketFanatic 10/14/2009 at 08:18 AM

Blake is a great guy, an accomplished athlete, and an outstanding role model. He's also a tremendous tennis player. But a practiced, deliberate, conscious and all-too-human one who is unable to enter the fully unconscious zone where Federer and Nadal have long resided, and Djokovic, Del Potro, Murray, Verdasco and Tsonga have visited for varying lengths of time. Ranked in the 20s at 30, Blake may not have lost any of his own tennis skill. But there are too many guys ahead of him with much more of it. Like another great and gentlemanly American player, Tim Mayotte, Blake is possibly too cerebral to win a slam. Where Blake classically turns a moment too late to stroke a screaming half volley, Federer and Nadal flick the wrist with an intuitive dance step. Blake had many qualities. But the force, whatever it's tennis form and name, was never quite with him.

Posted by Rafur 10/14/2009 at 09:02 AM

Well, must agree with all you guys about Blake and how pleasant etc. he is. He is also half-British. But he has just been beaten. Must admit have worried all lunch time as I thought he would be Raf's biggest problem! Funniest result so far, that other gorgeous Spaniard Feli Lopez has beaten Ferrer

Posted by SadSmiles 10/14/2009 at 09:50 AM

And Blake just lost to Nadal - twice in 2 weeks. And both times in 3 set. I watched this match and credit to James that he won the 2nd and made a match out of it when he was set and a break down. But I am not sure what new can be injected in Blake by getting a new coach - confidence (that's about it) but as far as winning matches, gaining points and believe still far fetched. It is amazing that despite soooooooo many US home tourneys these guys cannot make use of it. pity.

Posted by Ruth 10/14/2009 at 09:54 AM

As I said on the YC thread...not a bad performance from an old guy! :)

And, as I said last night, I see no signs in Blake of the physical symptoms which we associate with aging tennis players or athletes in general.

What happens in this last stage of the tennis career of James Blake will depend on which of the following cliches triumphs: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" and "It's never too late to learn (something new)."

We shall see.

Posted by tina 10/14/2009 at 10:12 AM

I don't think Blake has it in him to win a 1000-level title.

But then again, I didn't think Old Man Ljuby would beat Hott Sauce.

Maybe Blake would play in a more inspired fashion if he announced his retirement.

Posted by Nick 10/14/2009 at 10:49 AM

Andrew Miller:

Mentioning others like Bjorkman, Haas and Schuttler has some merit. However, Blake, even at his peak, has never won a Masters Series Event, nor been to the Semis of any Major. I agree his strategies have been bad - i.e., he's not a "thinker" on the court. He's more like a mindless ball basher. It's a mental approach rampant mostly in the Juniors, sometimes in Futures/Challengers, and it can work in those events. The Pros is another story. The best players on the tour, throughout history, are the ones who have been mentally superior to the rest, whether or not they are technically superior. When a ball bashing strategy starts to fail, the predictable choking sets in. When things aren't working for him, Blake has never had a Plan B. Ever.

But whether the Old Dog could learn THAT MANY new tricks at age 29 is wishful thinking at best. Learning new "tactics" is a double edge sword - it could change a sagging patch of bad play during a match. But you still have to execute the new "tactics" at the most pressure packed moments. It's a further disadvantage when such tactics don't have the luxury of being stored in career muscle memory for a decade or two. Every player who remains successful long term goes to their Best Shot at crunch time, not their Newest Shot.

This Bodo piece is a figurative Big Wet Sloppy Kiss to Blake, most probably in hopes of cashing in on another "co-authorship" of any future Blake "autobiography". But to say with any seriousness that Blake's star could still ascend, when it never really did to begin with, is well, unlikely.

Posted by Blockhead 10/14/2009 at 11:24 AM

Who cares ?

I gave up on James Blake years ago. He mentally checks out of way too many critical matches, and in the past 2 years checks out of too many average matches.

He once had the physical gifts and the talent to be a serious contentder at several majors - but no longer. He's back to the old James - just putting in his time and collecting a paycheck.

Posted by Ruth 10/14/2009 at 02:26 PM

"to say with any seriousness that Blake's star could still ascend, when it never really did to begin with, is well, unlikely."

That is an odd statement considering that Blake "ascended" to #4 in the world during a time when, as millions of of Fed fans will quickly tell you, we were NOT in a weak era. :) Or, is #4 just not good enough?!?!

(I am referring specifically the "when it (his star) never really did" portion of the statement.)

And speaking of cliches (as I was earlier), I vote for the early retirement of phrases like "mindless ball basher," "weak era," and many more!

Posted by John P. McEnroe 10/14/2009 at 03:37 PM

For Aubrey - I am indeed the father of John, Jr. and Patrick McEnroe.

For Beth - I am not John McEnroe, Sr., but John P. McEnroe, and he (young John) is Junior.

Best to all. I enjoy making the occasional comment.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/14/2009 at 04:01 PM

Mr. McEnroe, thank you for joining in from time to time to present us with your perspective. It is not often we hear from someone who has been as close to the action, yet still can maintain an element of objectivity.

Posted by Rosangel 10/14/2009 at 05:32 PM

Aubrey: I believe it's Mr McEnroe senior.

Posted by mithowl 10/14/2009 at 05:35 PM

Why does Blake get so much attention here ?

The bottom line is Blake is crap match player , sure he can hit purple streaks and hit flat winners for a set or two and maybe scare the big boys but when it mattesrs most hes mentally weak.

Roddick is the only hope for US tennis right now and even thats long stretch unlesss its on grass and Fed isnt somehow there.

I dont know about these other guys liek Harrison but are they really going to do anything that special ?

Agassi , Pete , Nadal etc where winning and contendinf majors at 19 and those up n comers arent even competing in the masters events.

Id love to see a resurgence in US tennis but I fear that the mens side will become mostly dominated by the easern block countries ( like the women ) with spain in the mix , france producing entertaining but not slam winning players.

Scotland sure as hell wont be on the map and England ... ho ho

Sweden will probably have 1 or 2 players up there as they always do ( poormans spain )

Its shame but i guess thats reality for you .. more kids these days are sold image than substance , and tennis ( unless you take to it ) is never going to appeal to street kids until someone comes along like Mac , Jimmy , Andre and makes it cool again.

As good as Fed etc is they just dont = the drama and entertainment value of yore.

Tennis is lot mroe athletic now , but unforuantely killing the sport if guys like Nadal bite the dust what hope is there for others ?

If you ask me ATP should be seperate from players and all that pharam drug money lying dormant in non progressive drug treatments should be poured into stem cell research to cope with the stresses of the modern impact of the game.

Forget racquet technology , what you need is humans with connective tissue that can take the grind of the tour - or far far less events.

AMEN

Posted by Rosangel 10/14/2009 at 05:35 PM

OK I came on just too late. Mr McEnroe said it best himself. He is the father of the Grand Slam champ, who obviously is Junior (as Peter Fleming has said many times).

Posted by tina 10/14/2009 at 05:44 PM

Yes, when a father gives his name to his son, there is no need to add the "Sr." Now, if I could only find Mr. McEnroe's guest post on here... when was that, two years ago?

Posted by princepro110 10/14/2009 at 07:38 PM


I was courtside when Blake beat Nadal at the US Open years ago and he made his run "gifting" his quarter to Agassi. He could have made the finals if not for the "gift". It reminded me of all the gifts other old greats got near the end of their careers like Connors & McEnroe. Is 30 old for todays game? Well not if they stay in shape and stay off drugs like many top players in the 80's did !

Blake made runs because his backhand a reliable shot.......not anymore......its a liability now!

Posted by alibaby 10/14/2009 at 09:36 PM

Hi Pete:
I am a fan of James Blake! Who deserves to win more than he? He has gone through so much in his personal life.
James will always be a fighter (and a nice person) to me.
Go James, go!
Your fan, Ali

Posted by jann 10/14/2009 at 10:37 PM

Can you still count Blake as a contender? His reputation certaily preceeded him. Blake was never a contender at a Slam, much less anywhere else except third tier tournaments. A player who never reached a semi of a Slam or won a TMS event cannot be considered a real Slam contender. You cannot contend for the title if you do not get close enough for it to be within your reach.
Davydenko who has two TMS shields, plus four semi final appearance at Slams, and was top five for a few years (highest ranking #3) cannot be considered to be the same level as Blake. All they have in common is a Davis Cup and a game that relies on quickness.
If results don't matter, then how should one assess the players. He didn't even do what the much maligned Dinara did, become world #1 without winning a Slam. Are the ones we like better players than the ones we don't like. The battle is fought on the ground, you cannot rewrite Blakes career in the media.

Posted by The FireBrand 10/14/2009 at 11:12 PM

Hi All, Another longtime reader-first time poster here:

Thanks to Sun Tzu, we know that victory comes from deep thinking, detailed calculation, and long preparation. The principles in The Art of War are beautifully displayed in the game of tennis in my honest opinion. Many of the finer points about Blakes game, his mental and/or technical inconsistencies brought up by Pete, Andrew M, Ruth, Slice-n-Dice, Susana and Annie, and others expound on the need for James to be a much better and effective tactician and strategist.

We can all agree that Blake has an outstanding reserve of personal fortitude on and off court, but I would like to see him be more cunning and clever on the court. I have to agree with the observation that his on-court demeanor is at many times so poor and uninspired that its disconcerting as an avid tennis fan to watch. At times I convince myself that this could be a clever deception on his part as he's battling back from a break down or in a tie-breaker but then I know why if the resulting is him losing said point/set/match. He's a guy crowds love to support, but if he's not engaged with them he loses a great deal of momentum.

A superior player is able to out think his opponent, to constantly shift and frustrate them, downplays direct attack in favor of maneuver, deception, and surprise. To want to attack and exploit weaknesses, while defending one's own. From what I've seen, Blake will overuse the forehand and just "ball-bash" from the baseline (a frequent complaint from others) and hopes it goes well. After all it's not overwhelming firepower that will always subdue the opponent.

It's coming down to dirty fact that he has to add variety in his use of tactics to advance a strategy. He has unbelievable skills and weapons that it's absurd to not mix them up from time to time to keep his opponents guessing.

Thanks for tolerating my geekiness here.

Posted by Ray T. 10/15/2009 at 01:31 AM

James is a great ambassador for the sport, but his age is finally exposing the fact that his whole career was nothing but hardcourt tournaments. Now that he can no longer compete with the youngster even there, he's unfortunately fading away even faster than older players who can play on all surfaces. It's sad, since he's such a nice guy, but it's only fair after all...

Posted by dougpiki 10/15/2009 at 07:44 AM

Nevermind Im sure James's father is proud.

No matter how many times he chokes he can always say that.

Posted by Well Left 10/15/2009 at 09:58 AM

didn't get the memo on Blake's duds?

http://www.tennis.com/backcourt/general/backcourt.aspx?id=184188

TRB is no longer with us, dougpiki.

Posted by Peter Schwarz 10/15/2009 at 03:36 PM

I love Jimmy-boy, although not his entourage, but he's D-O-N-E. Craft a graceful exit, budd.

Posted by chrisoddo@sbcglobal.net 10/16/2009 at 01:12 AM

Is it just me or does it seem that James kind of dreads living under a microscope? He seems painfully aware, in a very strange way, of the fact that he is being watched, and possibly criticized when he plays. I think he just wants to be left alone. But at the same time it's like he wants to be loved, embraced, and adored. But we don't really tend to love, embrace, and adore those who we perceive to be under achieving. Much of Jame's career has been miraculous, but suddenly the public realizes that James could and should be doing better than he currently is.

I get the feeling that deep down he is happy with what he's done. He should be. We want him to want more for himself, but when you look at his accomplishments, especially given the setbacks he was dealt, he's done remarkably well.

It's our nature to want some perfection out of him that really doesn't exist. Not in him at least. Not everybody has that determination that makes a world-class player who has reached number 4 burning to get even higher. Only the truly legendary have that. Of course it'd be a nice ending to the whole fairy tale that is Jame's career. But my bet is that Kelly Jones lets him off the hook.

Posted by Building Materials & Supplies 10/16/2009 at 08:22 AM

Blake and the Shark

Thanks for sharing

Posted by Building Materials & Supplies 10/20/2009 at 03:17 AM

Blake and the Shark

Thanks for sharing

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