PORTLAND, Ore. -- James Blake has seldom done things the smooth, conventional way, not in tennis, not in life. He spent much of his adolescence in a back brace to correct scoliosis, matured late, climbed the ladder slowly and survived a significant career interruption after a freak training accident.
Blake runs on the high-octane gas of emotion and momentum. When the tank runs low in a match, it's sometimes been difficult for him to find a way to siphon the energy he needs to recharge.
This season was a distinctly mixed bag for him. His moving autobiography became a best-seller, earning him even more respect and affection from fans already inclined to like him, but his competitive engine sputtered at times and he fell out of the top 10 he had worked so hard to reach. Playing second singles on the U.S. Davis Cup team behind Andy Roddick offered Blake relatively few chances at meaningful matches and in the semifinal round against Sweden, he let himself down by playing too conservatively.
Lining up for the Davis Cup final against Russia would have been pressure-filled enough without that recent backstory, but Blake didn't shy away from the situation or the doubts he knew people would voice about him. He put his feelings on the line and out for public consumption weeks before, saying that being part of a title-winning team would redeem anything that had come before, this season or in any other.
Friday, Blake delivered, although not without a struggle. His 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (3) victory over scrappy Mikhail Youzhny, following Roddick's efficient win over a clearly overmatched Dmitry Tursunov, puts the U.S. in a near-unbeatable position -- ahead 2-0 in a best-of-five series with the world's most talented and telepathic doubles team playing to clinch on Saturday.
"They've believed in me the whole year, and I wanted to prove them right," Blake said of his teammates.
Bob and Mike Bryan lope into every match with the darkly purposeful look of panthers in search of their next meal. They won't take anything for granted against the improvised team of Igor Andreev and Nikolay Davydenko, or whomever Russian captain and tactical guru Shamil Tarpischev decides to send into the line of fire. He can substitute up to an hour before the match.
But the twins' 12-1 record in Davis Cup play speaks for itself. The likelihood is that Blake's win has set up a dream scenario for the U.S. team -- a championship where everybody is a winner.
"They're pretty pumped up, I mean, to put it mildly," U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe said of the 29-year-old southern California natives, who finished the year as the top-ranked team in the world for the third year running. "They get pumped up for breakfast."
Blake jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set against Youzhny and looked as if he had an unaccustomed chance to cruise when he went up two sets, at home, on a surface he'd been pummeling all week in practice. But the agile, tenacious Youzhny, with his soldier's buzzcut and gut string toughness, kept digging for great gets and pushing Blake deep to the corners. He traded service breaks with Blake in the third set and when he prevailed in the tiebreak, a note of urgency crept into the crowd noise at Memorial Coliseum.
On the bench, Roddick, who ran his 2007 Davis Cup record to 6-0 Friday and has made winning in this least routine of settings almost routine, chewed on his nails and tugged at his knit cap between exhortations. McEnroe kept his expression calm and his advice positive even as conflicting emotions flickered across Blake's face during crossovers.
Blake broke Youzhny to go up 5-4 in the fourth set, only to relinquish that break in the next game with the match on his racket, and the crowd sagged and roared pleadingly again. But Blake was determined to write his own script this time. He edged ahead in the tiebreak with two service winners, saw Youzhny miss a drop shot attempt, then cracked a crosscourt forehand winner that left Youzhny lunging on the baseline. When the Russian smacked a forehand into the net on match point, the bear hug between McEnroe and Blake emanated equal parts pride and relief.
It's always been clear that Blake's world-view extends far beyond tennis. If you buy into the theory that athletes with a narrower focus have a better chance at success because they don't overthink, that kind of depth may not seem like the best weapon to go along with groundstrokes and volleys.
Billie Jean King is a notable exception to that rule, and when Inside Tennis magazine publisher Bill Simons tracked her down in the arena after the match, she told him she thought Blake's win could be "life-changing."
The deeply family-oriented Blake respectfully but firmly corrected the icon when Simons asked him about the comment. "It's tough for me to say 'life-changing' when there are other things out there," Blake said. But he allowed that it was the biggest victory of his career, and having his mother and brother in the stands charged it with that much more meaning.
Many fans would tell Blake it was also a major milestone for those among them who want so badly for him to have a career that fully lives up to his winning personality.
Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor who is covering the Davis Cup for ESPN.com.