James Blake

Born: December 28, 1979 in Yonkers (New York)
Height: 1.84 m
Plays: Right-handed
The son of an English mother, Blake, with his stylish game and distinctive dreadlocks (two years after he lost them, he began to play better), brought a refreshing aura to the tour at the start of the new century. Expectations soared high. Though not at the same level from the onset, both he and Andy Roddick were expected to fill the shoes of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras as the mainstays of US tennis. While it did happen, the outcomes fell far below what had been anticipated for both players. The years 2001-2003 marked a turning period in Blake’s career (he didn’t finish Harvard University at the time, deciding to become a pro), establishing him as someone incredibly talented (his back-to-back five-set defeats to Lleyton Hewitt at the US Open were very telling, especially the one in 2002), possibly possessing one of the fastest forehands in history. This wasn’t just about the speed of the ball he could hit but also his super-fast reaction to the opponent’s shots.
However, mentally, he appeared unstable, often unable to hold his nerve in crucial moments required to win the most important events. At different junctures in his career, Blake held an awful record of 0-7 in deciding third-set tie-breaks at the main-level (stopped it in the Sydney ’06 final) and 0-9 in five-set matches, before eventually overcoming these challenges.
I often pondered, ‘How could someone with such a varied skill set have such dismal records?’ Here are my conclusions:
– Blake, akin to the early version of Agassi, was a front-runner… his style of play was fast-paced, but he struggled to sustain concentration for extended periods (he could keep his best focus for two hours at most)… if a ‘no-ad and champions tie-break’ system had been implemented during his era, he might have emerged as one of the most successful players;
– his backhand, although a decent shot overall, was his weakest link… in deciding sets at crucial junctures like 5-all or 6-all, he tended to miss more backhands, aware of this, he often tried to evade using his backhand excessively, taking additional risks by running around it to utilize his forehand;
– he exhibited exorbitant pride in showing emotions, especially when there was a long way to go… while he managed to win a few sets after saving match points, they were predominantly second sets, he seemingly lacked the psychological resilience to engage in a mental battle to shift the momentum, enabling him to lead 2:0 at the beginning of the deciding set after narrowly avoiding defeat in straight sets (his first ATP-level match win from a match point down came in his 138th tournament!)
– he was too conservative with his second serve… to win crucial points, he either needed to match the speed of his first serve with the second, or, given his good volley technique, occasionally experiment with a kick-serve and follow it up with a net approach
Was his talent squandered? Not entirely. His Davis Cup victory over Mikhail Youzhny in the 2007 final, on Friday, stamps his legacy, setting the tone for the weekend (the USA defeated Russia that Saturday). The subsequent year, he came within a point of securing at least a Silver medal, yet wasted a triple match point against Fernando González, a notably challenging opponent (Blake had also lost a five-setter to González in a Davis Cup encounter two years earlier). The Beijing loss must have been excruciating, especially considering Blake’s quarterfinal victory over Roger Federer, avenging eight previous defeats. As someone who became No. 4 in the world, Blake should have won at least one big title and reached a major semifinal. However, it didn’t happen; he played in three big finals (Indian Wells, Shanghai-Masters, Cincinnati), but each time, he received a lesson from Federer – also to the Swiss he lost two major quarterfinals, the third one (first chronologically) to Agassi, being two points away from the victory. In contrast to matches against Federer, Blake felt quite comfortable facing the second-best player of his era – Rafael Nadal. Blake had defeated him three times in a row, then lost four times, but each of those matched required a deciding set. Apart from Blake, also Brad Gilbert and Guy Forget reached the No. 4 in the world never advancing to a Grand Slam semifinal, however, they both triumphed in events adequate to current Masters 1K (Forget twice).
Career record: 366–256 [ 245 events ]
Career titles: 10
Highest ranking: No. 4
Best GS results:
Australian Open (quarterfinal 2008)
US Open (quarterfinal 2005-06)
Davis Cup champion 2007
Hopman Cup champion 2003-04
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