Blake's ready for Federer Express

James Blake may be in what one interviewer called "an extended zone," but he recognizes that Roger Federer is in a zone of his own right now, a Bermuda Triangle of tennis where otherwise sturdy ships vanish without a trace.

Updated: March 29, 2006, 10:45 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- One player has been hot since late last summer, the other for more than three years. James Blake may be in what one interviewer called "an extended zone," but he recognizes that Roger Federer is in a zone of his own right now, a Bermuda Triangle of tennis where otherwise sturdy ships vanish without a trace.

"I'm impressed with how Roger's done it for years," the ninth-ranked Blake said as he prepared to play Federer in Thursday's quarterfinals of the Nasdaq-100 Open, which marks the second time he will face the world No. 1 in less than two weeks. "To be honest, it's never easy for me. I'm not a guy who can go out and just be routinely beating these guys without a lot of effort. It takes a lot of effort for me. I'm finding out if I can continue to do that … I know I need to keep this mental focus up."

James Blake
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeBlake lost to Federer in three sets two weeks ago in the final of the Pacific Life Open.
Blake is 43-11 since August 2005 and has won four of the 12 ATP tournaments he has entered in that stretch. Up to that point, he had won just one tournament since his pro debut in 1998. Blake is 22-5 this season, including a 3-1 mark in matches against top-10 players, and handed No. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain one of his three losses.

Federer, who is 258-27 since the start of the 2003 season, has lost just once in 2006 -- to Nadal in the finals at Dubai -- against 25 victories.

Like most of Federer's contemporaries, Blake has found himself in deep water against the Swiss superstar. He has yet to win a set in three matches against Federer since 2003. The last defeat, in the final of the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells, is still fresh.

Federer fell behind 4-1 in the first set, but won the last four games to prevail 7-5. The two men held serve through the first six games of the second set, but Federer throttled up again, taking the last three games of that set and shutting Blake out in the third.

"He played aggressive, took the ball early, put away his forehands when he could, didn't miss on the backhand, made me run around," Federer said after that match. "That's usually what I do. He gave me a little bit of my own medicine.

"I have that advantage, being so used to any situation. Being 4-1 down, double break, there's no need for me to panic, whereas others maybe think, 'I've already lost.' I think the more you put yourself in the position, the more you learn from it, the stronger you get."

Blake said he walked away feeling as if he understood a little more about what it would take to shoot out the tires on Federer's getaway car.

"I learned that I can play with him," Blake said. "First set I obviously had chances. I was playing pretty well. But it's a matter of keeping that level up and not kind of getting ahead of yourself or … thinking about everything he can do. Because, obviously, he can do just about anything with a tennis racquet in his hand. But on a given day, hopefully so can I.

"I need to know that it's possible and know that I have no pressure on me and not worry if I'm up a break, two breaks, a set, whatever."

Blake's longtime coach Brian Barker said he thinks Blake is "definitely'' one of a small number of players capable of beating Federer in a given match.

Barker's simple counsel is for Blake to worry about his half of the court -- easy enough, except that Federer is capable of turning that turf into a firing range.

"I don't think James has too many weaknesses these days, and I don't think Federer has any weaknesses either," Barker said. "It definitely takes someone with a lot of firepower to beat him. A real consistent player who waits for the other guy to miss is never going to beat him.

"Luckily enough for James, he has that style of game, which you either have or you don't at this point. … Federer is going to hit some shots that are going to be spectacular, some of the best shots that are going to be hit against you all year. You just play your game, stick to it, don't rush and get a little too anxious and go for too much."

Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.