By Matt Cronin
At the age of 32, James Blake will be the oldest American singles player at the 2012 US Open, which means that he will bring a wealth of experience to the table and as of late, a fairly clean bill of health.
Certainly one of the most popular players at the event over the past decade, Blake needed a wild card to get into the tournament after spending much of the past year battling a debilitating knee injury.
His form has picked up since the Emirates Airline US Open Series began, however, and given how much crowd support he normally gets in New York, he could very well play the role of a spoiler, and be a very threatening one at that.
"I’m playing fine and my knee feels so much better," he said during last week’s tournament in Cincinnati. "I was kidding myself thinking I was able to play in March and April. It’s miles of difference now being able to move the way I can, changing my positioning on every shot, being aggressive and having more confidence on my serves and returns. I’m back to playing well again, but I just need matches. You are not going to be as confident or comfortable on break points, and doubts might creep in until you get a win or two here and there and come through in some big matches."
The native of Yonkers who grew up in nearby Fairfield, Conn., Blake is currently ranked No. 115. He’s played just 15 matches this year on the ATP World Tour and won five of them, including a first-round victory over Alberto Ramos in Winston-Salem on Monday. The clay and grass weren’t kind to him, but he’s begun to reestablish himself on hard courts.
He scored a win over the promising young American Ryan Harrison in Atlanta; fell 7-6 in the third set to Tobias Kamke in Los Angeles; won two rounds in Washington, DC before a losing a close two setter to eventual champion Alexnder Dolgopolov; and then in Cincinnati, beat No. 34 Kevin Anderson before losing 6-4 in third set to No. 18 Kei Nishikori.
"I played the way I want to and that’s the way my matches used to be, where they could go either way," he said. "I need to get rolling. I was able to play a top 20-player and felt like I was dictating and controlling the match, but before I knew it, I gave him the confidence back. I need to start executing on the big points."
A former world No. 4, Blake realizes that things can turn in a positive direction at any time. In 2004, he ran into a net post in Rome and suffered fractured vertebrae in his neck. Then in the summer, he contracted Zoster, a condition affecting hearing and visionary senses and causing temporary paralysis on one side of his face. He played only matches during the last five months of the year.
By the summer of 2005, after putting in a tremendous amount of work off court and on, he caught fire. In New York in front of a roaring crowds and dozens of his family members of friends who formed the raucous "J-Block," he took down 1997 US Open finalist Greg Rusedski, the difficult Russian Igor Andreev, the then rising teenager Rafael Nadal, and a solid top-20 player in Tommy Robredo before going down to the legendary Andre Agassi 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) in one of the most thrilling matches played in Arthur Ashe Stadium in the past decade. Some 20,000 fans stayed after 1 a.m. on Thursday morning to soak in every moment.
Blake served for the match at 5-4 in the fifth set, and also held a 5-4 lead in the tiebreaker with two serves on his racket before Agassi responded brilliantly. It was a sad ending for Blake, but not the tennis world as the match would go down in history as a must-see.
"That's what [the Open means], what you just saw out there," Agassi said at the time." There's no place like it. It's 1:15 in the morning, 20,000 people out there, and tennis won tonight."
Blake now remembers his run more fondly then he did a year or two later when the loss still stung. Now it gives him belief that can shake off injuries and shine once again.
"I wasn't healthy in 2004, and in 2005 I went like six weeks without winning a match except one I got due to retirement and then I made finals of D.C. against Andy [Roddick], then won New Haven and before I know it, I’m in the quarters of the US Open against Andre, so I know it can change," he said. "Obviously I’m not 25 anymore but it was the same thing then -- I was just curious as to why I wasn't winning matches anymore. At that point I was pretty frustrated, but I’m less frustrated now because I’m 32 and have a little better perspective. Hopefully it can turn it around quicker."
Life has changed a lot for Blake during the past year. He became engaged to Emily Snider, who gave birth to their daughter Riley in early June. His family smiles at him when he returns home, so he isn’t just eating and breathing tennis 24/7. There was some talk during this season that 2012 would be his last US Open, but unless his knee or shoulder breaks down again, there’s a strong possibility he return in 2013 at the age of 33.
"It’s all dependent on my body," he said. "Earlier this year, with the way my knee was feeling I was thinking about it. But it’s changed now. My fiancée is great whether I retire or commit to another two years. I hit 130 on the [speed] gun which is pretty good, so as long as I keep healthy and train smart, with the way my body is holding up now I don't think it’s my last US Open."
Blake’s US Open dramatics did not end in 2005, although it was arguably his most impressive run. In 2006 he took down former No. 1 Carlos Moya and now perennial top-10 player Tomas Berdych before losing a tough four-setter to eventual champion Roger Federer in the quarters.
He came into the 2007 as one of the top five favorites and had a pretty open quarter, but he took an emotionally difficult 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-0, 7-6(4) fourth round loss to Tommy Haas in a contest where he held three match points.
He has not reached the second week of the tournament since then, suffering three third round losses and then a second round defeat to David Ferrer in 2011.
He got a good US Open tune-up in Winston-Salem on Monday night when he faced his friend and Davis Cup teammate Roddick in the second round.
"I always get good support at the Open and I’m and familiar with the surroundings and the conditions are to my liking," he said. "I feel like I can get some wins there, but as I’ve found out, anything can happen."