Patience wasn't Blake's virtue
James Blake didn't play his best match Sunday, losing to Gael Monfils in the fourth round. But, as Greg Garber explains, Blake's loss wasn't because he couldn't handle the red clay of Roland Garros.
PARIS -- For the better part of eight days and three matches here at Roland Garros, patience was James Blake's singular virtue.
And then, late in the fifth set against French phenom Gael Monfils, Blake inexplicably reverted to form. The tipping point: With Blake serving at 4-all and 30-40, Monfils sent a fat, defensive ball across the net and Blake rushed his forehand volley -- right into the net. And so, the last American man was out at the French Open.
Monfils advanced to the Round of 16 on Sunday, defeating the No. 8 seed 6-2, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (1), 7-5, 6-4. For Blake, it was the second straight match that has required two days to finish.
Clay, admittedly, is not Blake's natural habitat.
He is a powerful player, whose weapons of serve and forehand are far more effective on a faster surface. It is not a coincidence that Blake's Grand Slam breakthrough came at the U.S. Open -- he reached last year's quarterfinals before losing to Andre Agassi -- where the hard courts are an ally.
At Roland Garros, the red clay suspends both time and space. A shrieking forehand that would be a winner at the National Tennis Center is merely the second- or third-to-last shot of a well-constructed rally in Paris.
Blake, 26, has risen to the top of tennis at a relatively late age. He attended Harvard University, but the true education did not come in the ivy-covered halls in Cambridge, Mass. Rather, it occurred on the dusty dirt courts of Europe. Players he considered inferior were beating him. How?
In a word, patience. Even with the knowledge that offense has always paid his bills, Blake has learned to embrace defense. He accepts that on clay he cannot succeed by merely being himself. By definition, he must be someone else. Giving in, he now knows, doesn't mean giving up.
"It was a matter of feeling more comfortable mentally, where I don't get down on myself," Blake explained last week. "You can feel like you're putting balls away, they get them back, you can feel like you're ahead, and it turns around so quickly. There's just so much in it mentally to stay with it, to kind of ride out the ups and downs and not get too high or low and just keep playing the right way and being patient.
"You keep the point going. You don't let the guy off the hook and just kind of go for a winner there. You get it back and make him hit another winner. If they do, too good. It ends up winning you so many points, just getting that one more ball in play."
The conversion did not occur swiftly or easily. In fact, Blake lost his first two matches on clay, in Houston and Rome, before breaking through in Hamburg. He handled former French Open champion Carlos Moya in the first round and Andy Murray in the second. He lost in a third-set tie-breaker to Mario Ancic (now into the quarterfinals) in the third round.
And so Blake came to Roland Garros in a healthy state of mind. He bludgeoned Paradorn Srichaphan in straight sets and, in a match some thought he would lose, Blake dusted clay-court specialist Nicolas Almagro in four sets.
Monfils, though, was a different kind of cat. Although he is French, he is not your typical clay-court wizard. Monfils, a spidery 6-foot-3, 177 pounds, plays more of a hard-court game. He has a big serve and, although some believe that Blake is the fastest man on the Tour, Blake gives the nod to Monfils, the 2004 junior champion here. After Sunday's match, Blake called Monfils the best athlete he's played against, which, considering the athleticism of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, is saying something.
Two of Monfils' enormous strides can bring him within range of almost any ball. Which effectively gives him a clay-courter's ability to extend rallies. This, of course, plays well to the home crowd.
Rabid nationalism can be an irresistible force, as several seeded players discovered on Saturday. Frenchman Julien Benneteau hammered No. 11 seeded Radek Stepanek in four sets in front of a roaring crowd on Suzanne Lenglen and then countryman Paul-Henri Mathieu gave defending French Open champion Rafael Nadal all he could handle for nearly five hours on Court Philippe Chatrier. After losing the first set on Saturday to the 19-year-old Monfils at the raucous bullring that is Court No. 1, Blake looked ready to check out.
Blake's patience, at critical moments in the first set, evaporated. He was broken in the first and seventh games and never looked sharp. When Monfils broke him in the third game of the second set, Blake was in desperate shape.
With darkness descending, Blake finally raised his game and broke through in the eighth game. At the end of a long rally, Monfils netted a forehand and groaned as the match was leveled. This was the tipping point for Blake, as he prevailed easily in the tie-breaker, 7-2, and his throat-slashing gesture prompted the chair umpire to call it an evening.
Sunday's best-of-three sets match was exhausting to watch. The players split sets on the hottest day so far and Blake was on serve in the ninth game when he started playing higher-risk tennis.
"I was rushing a bit and thinking that he was going to be a little nervous in that situation," Blake explained. "I was thinking his legs weren't quite there, he couldn't get there to hit a passing shot, he could just kind of roll it and I'd be able to put the volleys away. Unfortunately, I missed two volleys and he was able to get there and hit a couple good passing shots.
"An error in judgment."
It was an eventful match for Blake, who mixed it up with the chair umpire and the fans. During the third game of the fourth set, a fan heckled Blake when a Monfils forehand was called wide. Blake invited the fan to come onto the court for an on-site inspection and, to the amusement of the raucous crowd, he did. The fan ran to the spot and, like the chair umpire, circled the spot with a flourish and gestured that the ball was out.
So, too, are the American men. For the third straight year, no one escaped the third round -- something that has never happened in the Open Era.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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