Blake part of smallest U.S. contingent to reach second round
James Blake is ranked in the top 10, but has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. Whether that breakthrough happens at Wimbledon remains to be seen, writes Bonnie DeSimone.
WIMBLEDON, England -- He needed this one. James Blake needs matches, period, and he needs convincing curtain-raisers in tournaments after getting the hook a few too many times this season.
This might not be the easiest place to start a streak, especially since the ninth-seeded Blake has never made it past the third round here, but he has to begin wherever he is. Tuesday, he ran his career record against Russia's 59th-ranked Igor Andreev to 5-0 with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win.
Blake served effectively and played with dispatch and some abandon, keeping Andreev consistently deep in his own territory. Blake made the kinds of athletic volleys that signify he's feeling right. Up 4-1 in the third set, he held the door open for Andreev by losing two straight service games.
"James might have relaxed a little bit, and missed some balls he would normally make," said his longtime coach, Brian Barker. "Andreev got more confidence and started playing better. James was lucky to get out of it."
Lucky and accurate, of course. Blake broke Andreev to go up 5-4, sending a low backhand past the diving Russian and whacking a ball at his body on the next point that Andreev tried to volley and dunked into the net instead, then served out the match.
"My game is one that's pretty aggressive, and it's one that can be pretty hit or miss," Blake said afterwards. "My best chance to win is playing sometimes lower-percentage tennis, but the kind of tennis that I'm best at. That's the only way I'm going to be able to go deep in a major, go deep in a Masters Series.
"I'm not going to win just staying six feet behind the baseline and just retrieving balls. These guys out here are way too good. They push me around too easily. I need to be the one attacking."
Blake joins Amer Delic, who defeated Lukas Dlouhy of the Czech Republic, and Andy Roddick as the only three of 11 U.S. men in the draw to survive the first round here -- the smallest contingent in the post-1968 Open era, according to ESPN research. It's an improvement over the 0-9 shutout at the French Open, which Blake noted was not a possibility since Roddick played compatriot Justin Gimelstob in the first round.
"I think we've got a long way to go to appease the American public's ideas of what it takes to have a good American tennis scene right now," Blake said. "I think it's pretty darn good with two players in the top 10, Andy being the third seed here, got the Bryans as a top seed [in doubles]. We're still in the Davis Cup.
"I think having two pretty big stars in the sport of tennis from any one country is a big deal with how globalized it's become. Last year at Shanghai, there were only two countries that had two players in the Masters Cup: Us and Spain. It's pretty tough unless you're from Switzerland to say you have a star that's guaranteed to be (in the second week of a Grand Slam event). But having two guys that have the chance to get there, I think we're in pretty good shape."
Romania's Andrei Pavel is the next obstacle in Blake's way as he tries to advance beyond the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam for the first time in his career. Larger potential pitfalls loom ahead: Chile's Fernando Gonzalez in the fourth round and none other than Roger Federer in those pesky quarters.
ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said he hopes to see Blake get a chance to redeem a disappointing loss to Gonzalez in the Australian Open and added that a quarterfinals appearance here, even if the result seems foregone, could set Blake on the right track for the rest of the season.
As U.S. Davis Cup captain, McEnroe said he occasionally has advised Blake to step back and make sure he's not too tightly tethered to a high-risk approach.
"You also have to play the score a little bit," McEnroe said. "Generally you have to stick with what you do well and I'm not suggesting that he should all of a sudden start pushing. But if you go for a big return, go for it down the middle rather than in the corner. If you hit it hard and take it early you're going to win a lot of those points. There's no reason that can't also be part of your game as opposed to go-for-broke all the time.
"There's nothing wrong with playing your game but also adjusting a little bit. Tennis is a game of adjustments and having more tools in your bag to use. He's developed his game where he uses his slice better, he's coming in well and you want to be able to use everything you have."
After beginning the season with a title in Sydney and a finals appearance in Delray Beach, Blake has exited most tournaments in 2007 earlier than he would have liked or expected. Some diligent work on European clay leading into the French Open came to naught as he lost to the always-troublesome Ivo Karlovic in the first round.
But Blake appeared buoyed Tuesday as he talked about his entry into another high-risk venture: publishing. His autobiography, "Breaking Back," will be released July 10.
"Hopefully it's not as rambling as most of my interview answers are," Blake joked, referring to his reputation among tournament stenographers as the most difficult player to transcribe. "That's what [ghostwriter Andrew Friedman] is there for. He could cut me off if he needed to."
Blake said the book will not be a tell-all in the mold of Vince Spadea's locker room confessional, which Blake and other players criticized when it came out last summer.
"My book stays in the non-fiction section," he said. "That was important to me.
"If some of these guys want to tell you their stories then that's up to them. It's not anyone else's business to go out and tell stories about other people. That's why my book is about me and my family."
Blake's mother Betty was in attendance Tuesday, returning to the country where she was born and lived until emigrating to the United States at age 16. Despite the homecoming of sorts, she said she walked the grounds this morning with tears in her eyes and a bittersweet feeling because it was during this tournament three years ago that her husband and James' father Tom died of cancer. He was diagnosed at the same time of year.
On a lighter note, Betty Blake recounted the time a few years ago when Blake asked for sunscreen during a hitting session with British tennis icon Tim Henman. When Henman acted somewhat surprised, Blake informed him that he was of British heritage himself.
"You mean we could have had you for Davis Cup?" Henman responded.
There was no chance of that, luckily for the Americans' already depleted numbers here.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com.
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