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Monday, July 23, 2007
Blake's book report


The USTA is busy billing the summer fare bundled together under the banner of the U.S. Open Series as the "Greatest Road Trip in Sports", but there's a real chance that like so many art-house road movies, the journey leads nowhere for one or more of the lead actors. That was the case for James Blake Sunday at the Countrywide Classic, where he lost in the final to Radek Stepanek.

Radek who? Yeah, that's the problem. You have to go pretty deep into the tennis culture to get some name recognition there, and even then the correct "Jeopardy" question to the answer, "Who is Radek Stepanek?" is likely to be: "He was Martina Hingis' main squeeze during the 2007 tennis season and a player famous for doing "The Worm" when he scored a good tennis win, which was not that often."

But you have to hand it to Radek -- he Step-aneked right in and took something that Blake sorely needed to get his campaign for the U.S. Open rolling: the title in a pretty big American hard-court event. Blake, as you may know, recently published an autobiography, "Breaking Back", which debuted at No. 22 on the New York Times hardcover non-fiction best-seller list. But unless he's more interested in the Pulitzer Prize than hard-earned prize-money these days, he had better drop everything else and focus, focus, focus on the game.

Stepanek got to the final the easy way, when his semifinal opponent, Nicolas Kiefer, withdrew. He came into the final with a paltry 13-15 record, and is in recovery from a dislocated disk that temporarily left him without the use of his left arm last year. Stepanek's struggles are something with which Blake can sympathize; in 2004, Blake fractured vertebrae in his neck and missed two months, and also came down with a form of Shingles called Zoster.

This result had to be a little spooky for Blake, in the same way that it's disconcerting to see your ex walking down the street with a new guy or gal. Blake is now in danger of being written off as a mercurial player who doesn't have the staying power to establish himself in the top 10 and stay there. The Countrywide tournament was a choice opportunity: Blake was playing before a home crowd in Los Angeles, needing to make a statement, and at the center of attention because of his recently published book. With all that in play, Stepanek was in as much of a must-win as a can-win match, yet Blake couldn't close the deal -- he went down in three despite having three set points in the first.

The emerging book on Blake is that if you can contain him and weather his flashes of brilliance, you can outlast him -- especially if you can slow down the pace and tempo of the match. The pressure continues to build on Blake to get his game together and write a fairy-tale end to his disappointing year.

Join Peter Bodo's next chat, Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET.