Last American hope?
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Few players on the ATP Tour ride the wave of momentum as well as James Blake. After dropping in the rankings from No. 4 in 2006 to 13th in '07, he's poised to climb back up the rankings with a strong performance at the Australian Open.
Blake posted a dominant performance in his second-round win over fellow American Mike Russell, a player against whom he has been competing since joining the tour nine years ago.
"I played Michael in the Challengers a bunch of times when I first came on tour, and he beat me every time," says Blake. "I thought he was unbeatable. I finally got a win over him in a tough match in the first round of the U.S. Open last year. We know each other's games well, and I have a lot of respect for his abilities, so I went into the match knowing I would have to play my best, and I did."
Blake gained his first victory over tricky Frenchman Sébastien Grosjean in a heart-pounding five-setter in the third round here on Saturday. And now he's facing another kind of pressure: After sixth-seeded Andy Roddick's shocking loss on Friday to Philipp Kohlschreiber, No. 12 Blake is now the top-ranked American in the Aussie Open men's field.
Luckily, Blake's game looks fine-tuned. He is still riding high from the U.S.' Davis Cup victory in December, which he labels "the greatest achievement of my career thus far."
"I'm hoping to use the confidence I gained from the Davis Cup last year to get me off to a great start in '08," he says. "I feel like after handling the extreme pressure of a Davis Cup final, all other stressful situations should pale in comparison. I love starting the year in Australia, I have a lot of confidence in how hard I have trained in December and it is a perfect chance to get the year off to a good start."
Blake spent the last few weeks of '07 training in Tampa before arriving in Sydney to play a warm-up event, where he lost in the first round to Fabrice Santoro. "I would've liked to have had a longer offseason, but I'd take winning the Davis Cup versus extra time off every year for the rest of my career," he says.
James also points to the support he gets from the Australian crowd as a benefit: "It's a fun-loving crowd," he says. "They see me having fun on the court and they seem to feed off that. The people here are so friendly and that makes it a lot of fun."
I asked Blake what areas of his game he is trying to improve and he pointed to his serve and fitness. Former pro Mark Merklein joined the Blake team last year to aid in that process and the results are noticeable.
"I've been hitting a lot of serves, and I feel like I'm getting more free points on my serve, which is huge," Blake says. "That will put more pressure on my opponent's service games, and help me preserve my body throughout the year. I've also been working incredibly hard with Mark, and I have total confidence in my conditioning. I feel like the longer the match goes, the better my chances are, and that's a huge factor in Australia considering how hot it can get."
James' game is high-risk, and the key for him is to keep his error count down. When he does that, as he did Thursday night against Russell, he's capable of beating anyone on tour.
Blake's obstacles over the past few years have been well-documented -- his comeback from breaking his neck in '04 and losing his dad to cancer that same year chief among them. He conquered those demons and probably belongs in the top 10 again. He'll be back there soon enough, even though everyone else seems to be more concerned with it than he is.
"Would I like my ranking to be higher?" he asks. "Yes, of course. But it's not something I'm concerned with. After what I've been through, I'm not going to lose sleep over my ranking. I know I'm trying the best I can. I love playing tennis, and I want to win as badly as anyone, but I know there are more important things in life than my ranking."