- Sandra Harwitt
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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- For some players, the constant questioning as to why they never seem to win a big tournament would get really old.
But 28-year-old James Blake, who obviously learned a thing or two about constructive thinking and presenting arguments while studying at Harvard, has become skilled at turning all the queries into a positive outlook.
"I try to just take it as a compliment the fact that I'm around a lot, and that people are expecting a lot from my talent and they're expecting I have a chance to win a major," Blake told ESPN.com after his 6-3, 6-4 win over Radek Stepanek put him into his second career Sony Ericsson Open quarterfinal on Tuesday.
The win helped Blake reach his seventh career Masters Series quarterfinals, which is the good news. But the bad news is he's yet to capture one of the prestigious titles in nine years playing on the tour.
His best Masters Series results were reaching the final at Cincinnati last year and Indian Wells in 2006. He also reached the final of the 2006 year-end Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, which is without doubt his biggest achievement at the premier level tournaments.
All three of those final defeats came at the hands of the best in the business, Roger Federer.
Blake, however, doesn't allow himself to spend too much time wondering what could have been if there was no Roger Federer to spoil his dreams, not to mention a lot of other players' dreams.
"It's something to think about for a minute and then let it go, because guys 10 years ago were saying, 'What if Pete Sampras wasn't around?'" said a reflective Blake, who has won 10 career titles and helped the United States win the 2007 Davis Cup title.
"And the Karl Malones and Patrick Ewings are saying, 'What if Michael Jordan wasn't around?'" There's always going to be someone who is going to set themselves apart whether it is mentally, physically or whatever. There are people who are the best in the world, and the best ever, and there's nothing you can do about it. It's tough to swallow when it's the same guy beating up on you all the time, but you just go out there and try to find a solution to win."
Taking that on board, Blake doesn't deny that winning a top-tier event is a definite career goal and would send a message to those who think he isn't capable of taking one of the nine Masters Series tournaments, year-end Tennis Masters Cup or even one of the Grand Slams, where he has never ventured beyond three quarterfinals.
"That would be a great feeling," Blake said. "Unfortunately, I think the chances I've had in three finals I've come up against Federer when he's playing some pretty good tennis all those times, too.
"I would like to get one of those [Masters Series] shields, but [it's] another thing I'm striving for, I'm working hard towards getting, but can't hang my head too low if I don't get one."
Some might question whether Blake is too complacent when it comes to being a top-10 player, since he seems so willing to dismiss his lack of success at the more prominent events.
But Blake's older brother, Thomas, said at the recent Delray Beach tournament in February that his brother hides his obsession with winning. According to Thomas Blake, James definitely possesses the typical younger sibling determination to win, saying, "From when we were kids, James always was competitive and had to win no matter what game we played. And that hasn't changed no matter if he's playing tennis or playing poker."
Blake chuckled when told what his brother revealed, but agreed that he tends to keep his initial reaction to losing a match far from the public eye.
"Right after the match, you guys don't see me in the locker room, and it's definitely not as positive then," Blake said, laughing. "But then it's over. Getting over it isn't something I was born with, it's something I've worked on since age 12 and am still working on.
"I don't try to beat myself up because when I was a kid, or even when I was younger on tour, I would beat myself up for a loss for weeks. I remember some of the veteran players talked to me after I had a bad practice, and they saw how upset I was and they said to me, "You really have to have a short memory."
Blake's record at the Sony Ericsson Open is nothing one would boast about on a résumé. While he reached the quarterfinals as his best performance here in 2006, last year he went out in the second round.
"It's not easy to play here. All the top guys are here and everyone is taking it so seriously, but … there's no reason for me not to do well here."
And now he has a chance for revenge once again when he takes on No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. Nadal beat Blake in three sets in the quarterfinals of the Pacific Life Open just before traveling to Miami.
But Blake shouldn't be too bothered by the recent loss, as he won their first three career matches as he won their first three career matches before this month's in Indian Wells.
"I really want to win every time I step on a court," Blake said. "I never feel I'm out of a match even if I'm down big; I've been down triple-match points before and come back and won.
"I always feel I can win."
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter who spends much of her year covering tennis around the world.
What if Roger Federer decided to take up checkers instead of tennis? Boy, would James Blake's résumé be a little snazzier. But like so many others, Blake keeps on truckin' along.