- Jane McManus, Reporter & Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- There were years when James Blake stormed into the U.S. Open, fueled by shouts of "Let's go, Jimmy Kid!" from the faithful of Fairfield, Conn. Blake was the hometown kid, the biracial player who would expand the scope of a traditionally white sport the way Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams did.
It's unlikely to be like that this year.
Blake needed a wild card to get into the U.S. Open this year, and he will face Belgian Kristof Vliegen in the first round on Tuesday afternoon. His placement in the third quarter of the draw also means he likely would face No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic if he reaches the third round.
Blake also needed a wild card to get into the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven last week.
In New Haven, Blake -- now 30 years old -- sat in front of reporters after losing in straight sets to No. 43 Alexandr Dolgopolov in the second round. He lost not by means of the 21-year-old Ukrainian but by unforced forehand errors followed by unforced backhand errors. Blake sat with a cap pulled low over his eyes and answered questions without looking up.
It wasn't the best way to go into the U.S. Open, which starts Monday at the Billie Jean King USTA Tennis Center in Queens.
"I wanted to string some matches together," Blake said. "Right now, I can play well for spurts, I can play well for a day, I can play well at times, and I don't have that same confidence where I know I'm going to play at a certain level every single day."
Blake has had his moments on the courts of Flushing Meadows. He packed Louis Armstrong Stadium in 2001 when he played Lleyton Hewitt. Kids of all colors leaned over the railing at the top when the seats were taken as he pushed the heavily favored Australian around the court with a barely harnessed forehand.
He lost that match, but won over a generation of New Yorkers.
In 2005, Blake donned old-school hot pink and black as an homage to Andre Agassi even while battling him through five dramatic sets in a quarterfinal. In one of Agassi's last appearances at the Open, Blake was a formidable and gracious opponent as Agassi was en route to reaching the final, where he lost to Roger Federer.
The next year, Blake surged -- he reached No. 4 in the world and was the highest-ranked American man at that time. After taking some time off this year to rehabilitate a knee injury, Blake is back, but his performances have been inconsistent at best.
Yet Blake doesn't think his best tennis is behind him. If need be, he said he would play lower-level challenger tournaments to help him get back into top form. He is not mulling retirement right now, he said.
"I don't know any other option," Blake said. "I've gotten as far as I have with hard work. I've gotten almost everything in my life though working as hard as I can, putting my head down and hoping for the best. And that's what I got to do now. It's tougher and tougher as the results aren't coming."
Jimmy the Kid and the fans who called themselves the J Block aren't really kids anymore. They are in their 30s, with jobs and kids and responsibilities. Tennis isn't exactly a game; it's a job that has helped Blake earn nearly $7 million and has given him the platform to write a book detailing his struggles with a broken neck, shingles and the devastating death of his father in 2004.
Blake's last tournament win was in 2007 at New Haven, and he knows his tennis isn't the same. But the way he figures, he came back from the events of '04, and he didn't play ATP tennis until after his sophomore year at Harvard, so he has more tennis miles left than many other 30-year-olds.
"I've hit enough balls in my day to know that I can play well at times, but I don't have the confidence to know that it's going to happen point in and point out," Blake said. "If I get the adrenaline going at the Open and play some good tennis, hopefully I could run that out and be a good run. But I know there's a chance I could go there and not play well and be out of there early."
And really, he said, it's always been like that. There are no guarantees on the court, so he puts his head down and keeps working because that's all he knows.
James Blake has struggled of late, but hopes to make a run at the U.S. Open.