Blake edges closer to supplanting Roddick

A breakout year for James Blake is getting better as he is on the verge of passing Andy Roddick as the top-ranked American in men's tennis. Whit Sheppard explains.

Updated: June 29, 2006, 10:01 AM ET
By Whit Sheppard | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Three years ago, James Blake came to Wimbledon with all but one of the family members who'd made the trip with him the three previous years. The trips were all the more meaningful for the Blake clan because Blake's mother is English and spent her first 16 years in Banbury, 33 miles north of Oxford.

His father stayed home in Fairfield, Conn., that year because he hadn't been feeling well for a couple of months and was scheduled to undergo what he termed a "minor" operation during the fortnight.

James Blake
AP Photo/Alastair GrantWith one more win, James Blake will advance past the second round at Wimbeledon for the first time.

After all, Thomas Blake Sr. hadn't been sick a single day in the 30 years Blake's parents had spent together. "I'll be back home before you get back," he told his wife. "It's nothing to worry about."

Blake fell in straight sets in the second round that year to Sargis Sargsian, and his mother immediately flew home to be with her husband, whom she hoped to find recuperating at home after his surgery.

But Betty Blake had a nagging suspicion while in England that her husband had soft-pedaled the seriousness of his medical predicament. Her worst fears were realized when she arrived home in Connecticut to an empty house.

A call to the hospital confirmed the gravity of her husband's condition. It turned out that Blake's father was a very sick man. He succumbed to stomach and esophageal cancer a year later on the morning of the Wimbledon men's semifinals, at age 57.

Three years later, it's a far happier story for James Blake at Wimbledon. He beat Dane Kristian Pless 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 Tuesday to advance to the second round, where he'll play unseeded, Wheel of Fortune-friendly ("I'd like a vowel please, Pat") Yeu-Tzuoo Wang of Taiwan.

With world No. 5 Andy Roddick experiencing a drop-off in his results over the past few months and Blake winning titles in Sydney and Las Vegas and posting a respectable third-round result at the French Open, it's possible that No. 8 Blake could leapfrog Roddick in the post-Wimbledon rankings and replace him as the top American.

That's an increasingly likely outcome that leaves the soft-spoken Blake, 26, somewhat humbled.

"Seeing my name higher than his is fine with me, but I still feel that he's proven himself for many years, and if I did go ahead of him it would be just barely," Blake said. "If I were to continue that for years, maybe it would be legitimate to say I'm the American No. 1, but he's still the guy."

By virtue of his win Tuesday, Blake set into motion a scenario in which Roddick has to make it to the Wimbledon semifinals to stay ahead of Blake in the ATP rankings. If Blake advances to at least the fourth round, Roddick would need to play in a third consecutive Wimbledon final to hold off his countryman.

Blake was pleased to get past Pless in Tuesday's first match on Court No. 2 without the benefit of having his A game.

"I've always felt like I was someone who needs to be playing well to win," Blake said. "It's a great feeling to not quite play your best and win, so I'm excited about that."

At No. 99, Wang might be much lower in the rankings, but Blake isn't treating lightly a player who few outside of his native Taiwan are even aware of.

"I know I can play better next round -- and I'll probably have to, [because] he's beaten me," Blake said, who lost to Wang in straight sets earlier this year in San Jose, Calif.

Blake and Roddick form the bedrock of the U.S. Davis Cup team, and both are poker aficionados, along with a number of other U.S. players (including the Bryan brothers and Mardy Fish). They even squeezed in a poker game at Roddick's house a few nights ago (they're all staying in the same subdivision near Wimbledon Village). Word is Roddick's brother and coach, John, won that night, at least according to ATP Web site blogger Mike Bryan.

Davis Cup camaraderie and modesty aside, Blake sounds all the right notes as he considers the possibility of assuming the mantle of American men's No. 1 and all of its attendant demands.

"I'm still learning about this whole top-10 thing and all the off-court things you have to do," Blake said, "all the pressure that goes with being the last American [playing], like at Roland Garros. … Andy's helped me deal with all of that."

Well, likely with all but the Roland Garros bit, anyway, where Roddick hasn't advanced past the second round since 2001. But Blake doesn't expect Roddick to cede without a struggle the place he's held since 2003 at the head of the table of American men's tennis.

"I think we're both comfortable with it, pretty confident," Blake said. "Andy's playing great, and I think he'll play well here. Whether he's No. 1 or 2 in America, I know he's got confidence and he's going to be one of the toughest guys to beat on grass and on hard courts this summer."

The thing is, Blake could just as easily have been speaking about himself. His success would no doubt please his late father, who taught his son how to play on the hard courts of Yonkers, N.Y. -- and further Wimbledon success just might help Betty Blake forge new, happier memories during her annual summer visits to her native England.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.