- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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GOTHENBURG, Sweden -- Playing second singles in Davis Cup necessarily means getting fewer chances at playing meaningful matches. The result is often in the books by the time the country's No. 2 takes the court on the final Sunday, since the No. 1 always leads off.
James Blake had a respectable 11-7 Davis Cup singles record heading into this weekend's semifinal round against Sweden, but seven of his wins have come in "dead rubbers" -- the antiquated phrase for exhibition matches played after the best-of-five competition is decided.
Blake earned his only "live" road singles win back in 2003 on an indoor hard court against Croatia's Mario Ancic. When U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe named the world No. 7 Blake to the team earlier this month, he restated the obvious -- that he's eager to see Blake take the "next step'' and win more away Davis Cup matches that count.
That goal remained elusive Friday. Sweden's 56th-ranked Thomas Johansson, who hadn't won in two previous tries against Blake on the ATP Tour, pounced on Blake's second serves and played aggressively throughout a 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win. Johansson drilled the tactics in his morning training session with Jonas Bjorkman Friday and was aided and abetted in his cause when Blake had a subpar serving day.
"James has taken a lot of great steps in the last couple years individually and also in Davis Cup, and I'm expecting him to take another one, which is to win a big match for us in an away match,'' McEnroe said. "That may very well be on Sunday. Who knows?
"The reality is that James has made incredible progress steadily in his career. He's probably improved more at a later age than most guys certainly that I know have done. Can he improve more? Absolutely. And I think he knows that and I think he will.''
Andy Roddick's crisp 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3), 6-3 defeat of a surprisingly sharp Joachim Johansson in the opener gave the U.S. a split on the day and put the Bryan brothers in their accustomed pivotal position for Saturday's doubles match. Depending on how the weekend plays out, Blake could find himself playing a decisive fifth match for the first time in his career Sunday.
Friday's matchup with T-Jo -- no relation to Jo-Jo, better known as Pim-Pim -- seemed to present a good opportunity for Blake to put some roadkill on his bumper because of the favorable surface and his previous record against Johansson.
Most of Blake's away losses have come on clay. Other than that, Blake said, the wildly different past opponents and venues make it difficult to pinpoint some common theme that would help him get over the hump.
"I'm not going to say there's one thing that's been a determining factor,'' Blake said. "I think today Thomas served great on a fast court, and that's one of the big keys to victory on a day like this and a court like this.
"Each one has a different feel. But today I don't relate it to a loss to [the Czech Republic's Tomas] Berdych or [Belgium's Olivier] Rochus. I just relate it to Thomas playing well today and me not coming up big when I needed to and not serving my best.''
Thomas Johansson dictated the pace from the start, exhibiting some of the qualities that helped him to a surprise title at the 2002 Australian Open: excellent anticipation and a fearsome return of service. While most of the talk going into the U.S-Sweden clash focused on how the fast carpet and low bounce would help the big servers, Johansson said it was equally valuable to his return game.
"I put a lot of pressure on him from the start, because as soon as you don't do that then you're under pressure from him,'' said the 32-year-old Johansson, a wiry throwback in his all-white outfit. "On this surface you cannot be second. You really have to take charge.
"It's too bad that we don't have more of those kind of surfaces on the tour because it fits my game. I have small legs so I don't have to bend them.''
Johansson spent much of last season sidelined with a detached retina suffered when he was struck in the eye by a serve in practice, lost his accustomed top-20 perch as a result and is now ranked 56th.
Blake was broken in his first service game and found himself down two sets before the match was an hour old. McEnroe went into full motivational mode on the bench during the break, settling in front of Blake on one knee for an animated, nose-to-nose discussion that did not appear to be prayerful.
Johansson appeared to be feeling the pressure in the third set and let Blake back into the match in an error-filled service game where he dumped a volley into the net on break point to go down 4-2. But Johansson benefited from Blake's back-to-back double faults that pushed one service game over the cliff in the fourth set, and fended off a couple of break points himself on the way to the win.
"As James said, you've got to take each match as its own entity,'' McEnroe said. "In this particular match, Thomas deserves a lot credit for how well he played.''
Blake said his dead rubber Davis Cup wins provided valuable experience when he was younger, but don't translate to much now other than entertaining the crowd. "I don't know how to describe a dead rubber,'' he said. "It's a weird situation in tennis that doesn't really happen in other sports. Once a team gets to four in the World Series you don't play the last three games.''
Roddick had to start in high gear and stay there to beat Joachim Johansson, who came out with few signs of the rust one might expect of a player idled since January by his second shoulder surgery in the past two years.
"His style of play I don't think is one that needs repetition,'' Roddick said. "Doesn't need a lot of matches to be effective or imposing … I don't think you ever totally ever get comfortable against Pim‑Pim just because you can go four or five games without hitting a second shot. ''
The fifth-ranked Roddick swatted 30 aces, credibly fielded the Johansson serves he could reach, didn't lose a point on his serve in either tiebreak and faced only one break point. His control and assertiveness recalled the efficiency of his first two sets against Roger Federer -- which also went to tiebreaks -- in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
But the laid-back, agreeable Johansson didn't yield much ground either until late in the match. He fell behind 0-40 in one game of his adrenalized first set, then helicoptered out of the hole by smacking four aces and a service winner. His coach, Johan Landsberg, said the 25-year-old will return to the ATP circuit next week in Bangkok and plans to use his protected ranking to nail down a spot in the main draw of next year's Australian Open.
Swedish Davis Cup captain Mats Wilander said he will definitely consider playing Joachim Johansson Sunday depending on how well he recovers and Bjorkman's frame of mind coming off the doubles match.
Wilander maintained he was not at all surprised by Joachim Johansson's performance. "I think it's not dissimilar to the practices he's had with Thomas,'' Wilander said. "Pim-Pim is very focused whether you and I are watching or 10,000 people. He doesn't care. He doesn't get tight. That's just the way he is.''
Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
At 11-8, James Blake's singles record in Davis Cup play leaves something to be desired. The fact that he's won only one "live" road match is cause for even greater concern, writes Bonnie D. Ford.