- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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One of tennis' most enduring player-coach tandems may have run its course.
No. 24 James Blake, struggling to regain the form that kept him in the top 10 for much of a three-season stretch from 2006 to 2008, said he and lifelong coach Brian Barker mutually decided that Barker would stop traveling with him after the U.S. Open.
Barker has coached the 29-year-old Blake for 17 years, helping develop him from an erratic, hot-tempered club player to an accomplished pro. Blake, who lost to Rafael Nadal in the second round of the China Open in Beijing on Thursday, told ESPN.com the parting was amicable and the strong bond between the two remains intact.
"It's not like we're ending our relationship," Blake said by telephone from Beijing. "We're still good friends, which will never change. Right now we both feel like I need to hear some things from a different voice. Kelly's been close to both of us for a long time, and he's a perfect fit for now. If things go well with him, everyone's happy. Brian wants nothing but the best for me. If they don't, then I go back to Brian and we know there's a reason I'm back. It was just time to take a little break and see how it goes with someone else.''
Blake splits his time between Tampa and his childhood home of Fairfield, Conn., near the town where Barker is based. The two say they will continue to work together when Blake is in Connecticut.
Barker said he encouraged Blake to make a change.
"I told him that the most important thing in his tennis career is to have a clear head and peace of mind for the rest of your life that you did everything you possibly could to get better, maximize your potential and not leave anything on the table," Barker said Thursday. "He eventually agreed that was a good idea."
Barker added that he and Jones have similar philosophies and expects Blake to "hear the same things in a different way ... Sometimes when you're not playing your best, the thinking is that you stir the pot. You put your hat on backwards. There are no guarantees, but you need to look at every option."
Blake came back from a serious neck injury, illness and the draining death of his father in 2004 to win nine ATP tournaments from 2005 to 2007 and hit a career-high No. 4 ranking at the end of 2006. Popular in the locker room, Blake attended Harvard for two years and his autobiography "Breaking Back,'' co-written with Andrew Friedman, cracked the New York Times best-seller list.
A perennial starter in an unusually stable U.S. Davis Cup lineup, Blake was part of the 2007 championship team, but he has yet to advance past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event. Blake is 22-18 in 2009 and reached two finals -- on clay in Estoril, Portugal, and at the Queen's Club grass-court event in London.
According to Blake, Barker suggested that he step back late last season, "and I kind of squashed it, said I wouldn't want to do that, wouldn't want someone else around."
This year, Blake has been plagued by several small but troublesome injuries -- a rolled ankle, a sore knee, a broken toe -- that made it difficult to establish any match rhythm and contributed to early exits in several big events. His frustration level increased, and the hard-court season, when Blake normally prospers, offered no relief, either.
After a first-round loss at the Cincinnati Masters event in August, he and Barker renewed their discussion about whether it was time for a change.
"We were going through the same things over and over, and I was looking for answers that probably weren't there," Blake said. "It may not have had anything to do with the coaching. Going into the Open, we had both had come to the understanding that we were going to stop, but we didn't want to change anything during or before the Open, being so important. The comfort level between us is very good and will always be very good."
Blake, known for his high-risk, go-for-broke style on court, has taken heat in recent months for keeping Barker at his side rather than seeking different advice when his game seemed to stagnate. He has repeatedly emphasized his loyalty to Barker, and said Thursday that he wasn't affected by outside opinion in making the change.
"If they're talking about you that much, you must have earned that pressure that you've gotten," Blake said. "We never let it affect us. I didn't keep him just to spite people -- I'm going to do what's best for me. Now I've hit a point where I need to try something a little different. Kelly's a great coach and people he worked with clearly improved when they worked with him.''
Blake plans to play in three more tournaments -- Shanghai; Basel, Switzerland; and Paris -- this season.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.
No. 24 James Blake, struggling to regain the form that kept him in the top 10 for much of a three-season stretch from 2006-08, said he and lifelong coach Brian Barker mutually decided that Barker would stop traveling with him after the U.S. Open.