- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- It was a perfectly gorgeous day, sunny and mild, on a holiday weekend at the National Tennis Center. Was it too much to hope for a minor hometown miracle at the U.S. Open?
As it turned out, yes. What we got instead was a major miracle.
On Saturday James Blake -- born in adjacent Yonkers, N.Y., and raised in nearby Fairfield, Conn. -- dominated Rafael Nadal, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. In some ways, it was an upset more stunning in scope than No. 4 seed and former Open champion Andy Roddick's first-round loss to Luxembourg's Gilles Muller.
"I'm waiting for the alarm clock to go off," Blake said after the match.
That's about right, because Blake, who was granted a wild card by the United States Tennis Associaton, was virtually unconscious against Nadal, playing what might have been the best tennis of his life. The win went against the 25-year-old Blake's on-court history -- it was the first time he has ever beaten a player ranked among the top 10 in a Grand Slam -- and the recent disaster of his off-court life.
Blake has been playing like a man possessed, someone who has experienced the worst that life can conjure.
It was 16 months ago that he fell awkwardly into a net post practicing in Rome. He fractured vertebrae in his neck and his father, Thomas, died of cancer less than a month later. A week later, in Newport, he contracted Zoster, commonly known as shingles. His face was partially paralyzed, his vision suffered and he had spells of dizziness. Standing there on the practice court, swinging at three balls was enough to push him into exhaustion. His ranking, once as high as 22, tumbled to 94 at season's end. And then it fell further, all the way to No. 210 in April.
And now, in a spectacular reversal of fortune, the unseeded Blake is into the fourth round of the U.S. Open -- matching the farthest he has ever gone in a Grand Slam. He has won 14 of 16 matches and nine in a row.
"I couldn't be more thrilled about this," Blake said in his post-match interview. "To say I'm taking it one match at a time is an overstatement because I haven't even thought about the next match yet. I'm still thinking about how great a feeling I have right now and the fact that my phone still hasn't stopped ringing since I've been in here."
Sometimes it's easy to forget that Nadal is only 19 years old. While he won the French Open earlier this year, in addition to eight other tournaments, his advancement to the third round was his best showing here in three appearances.
As he sat down for his interview, he sighed and smoothed back his long brown hair behind his ears. What were his emotions?
"I just lost one of the best tournaments in the world," he said, "so I am not very happy right now."
There was a festive, Davis Cup kind of feel in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday afternoon, perhaps a residual effect of Friday night's rollicking match between Roger Federer and Fabrice Santoro. The capacity crowd of 23,000 was solidly behind a favorite son. He was also urged on by the raucous J-Block, a band of Blakes' friends sitting in a club-level suite that got behind him two weeks ago in New Haven, where he won the second ATP tournament of his career.
Going in, the match had potential; Nadal and Blake, both baseliners, are two of the most athletic players in the game, speedy with terrific court coverage. Blake's big serve and forehand and Nadal's ability to return (he's the best returner of serve in tennis) and defend offered a sharp contrast.
Nadal, who was playing his third consecutive American wild card, was intent on working his way through the draw with the goal of meeting Federer, the No. 1 seed, in the final. Blake, on the other hand, said he was feeling no pressure.
"Today, I went out knowing that I had no pressure," Blake said. "I mean, him and Roger have just really dominated this year."
Blake met the moment, winning the first set with some forceful tennis. He broke Nadal in the ninth game and, after squandering two set points, converted the third. Predictably, Nadal came back, winning the second set in an arduous 10th game that featured four deuces and seemed to spell the end of Blake's dominance.
As Blake began to sag visibly, questions about his conditioning came to mind. Fitness has always been a question in Blake's game; he had been to five sets five times in his career and failed to win even once. But then an odd thing happened on the way to what many suspected would be a Nadal victory in four sets. Actually, James Blake happened.
His serve reappeared; Blake won 16 of 18 service points. With the score 2-all and Nadal serving at break point, Blake hit a sublime forehand topspin lob over Nadal, who had ventured to net. It fell inches inside the corner of the court and suddenly Blake was screaming and jumping -- and the crowd followed him. Blake broke him again in the ninth game to take the third set going away.
The fourth set was nolo contendere. It was Nadal who looked tired and frustrated. He won exactly eight points in seven games and the crowd could hardly contain itself. When Blake comically waved a Nadal mis-hit wide a la Carlton Fisk, they howled. And then they gave Blake a standing ovation before the last point.
It was the first win for Blake against a player ranked among the top 10 since a 2003 match with Caros Moya (then No. 5) in Indian Wells. That ended a telling 0-for-10 streak. After losing here to Lleyton Hewitt in 2001 and 2002 and Federer in 2003, Blake finally defeated a top opponent.
Afterward, Blake was asked if it was the biggest win of career. No, he said. His choice would be the 2002 tournament in Washington -- his first ATP title -- when he beat Andre Agassi in the semifinals.
"With all due respect to Rafael that match, it just seemed like everything was going right for me," Blake said.
With all due respect to Blake, considering the grand stage, this was a more significant victory. And if he can get past the winner of the Tommy Robredo-Sebastien Grosjean match, he could face Agassi in the quarterfinals.
Wouldn't that be delicious?
"If someone had told me a year ago that I have to go out and lose 0, 0 and 0 in the quarterfinals of the Open to Andre Agassi," Blake said, "I'd take it in a heartbeat."
Blake, when asked what the difference was in his match with Nadal, offered one word: confidence.
"If I had this match three years ago against a player like Nadal, I don't think I would have won it," Blake said. "I think after playing that first set, playing really well, solid, winning it, then losing that second set, I might have panicked.
"I didn't start panicking and getting ahead of myself. That's something you can't really teach. For me, it took a while. I took maybe some life lessons," he said.
Some of the most important lessons came from his father.
"It's not often, but sometimes things aren't going well and I want to throw my racket, I want to get a little upset," Blake said. "I want to think how rough it is, how bad it is because I'm down a set or a break or something. I'll think about it, and I'll think about the fact that he never complained when he had cancer. He didn't complain when he was having surgery, when he was having chemo, when he was having radiation.
"If he can do that through something like that, I'd feel much less of a man if I started complaining too much about being down a set or losing a couple of matches in a row," he said.
Or if he found himself even at a set apiece with the world's No. 2 player in the most important match of his life?
"One of the last things I spoke to my dad about [was] when he told me that he was proud of me," Blake said. "For him to say he was proud of me no matter if I win or lose, but as long as I -- he always taught me the work ethic and doing your best an acting appropriately.
"I feel like I did that today," he said.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
13hK. Lee Davis