Thirty-one years old, on sore and chronic bad knees, and out of the top 100, James Blake has turned up in tennis’ minor leagues. Tallahassee, Sarasota, and now Savannah. At some point, you have to know when to say when. At some point, it’s a little sad, and sickening, to see a former top athlete do something like this.
Not now, though.
It might turn out that Blake is done, but I don’t think so. I applaud him for what he’s doing. In fact, last year at the U.S. Open, I asked him if he would be willing to drop down to Challenger level events if needed, the way Andre Agassi did years ago to build things back up. He said he might.
Now, here he is, winning the tournament in Sarasota, Fla., Sunday, beating American Alex Bogomolov, Jr. 6-2, 6-2 in the final. In the semis, he beat No. 65 Ryan Sweeting in straight sets.
This takes guts. It’s not something you see a lot of the best tennis players doing. It was just Jan. 1, 2007 that the top of the rankings went like this: Federer, Nadal, Davydenko, Blake.
Last week, Blake climbed from No. 149 to 109.
So Blake is either 1) admirably willing to go back to the grind or 2) in denial. I’m going with No. 1.
The point is that he’s stringing together wins for the first time in a while, having won seven of eight matches in the past couple weeks, not counting a walkover. He is gaining momentum.
He told me the leading up to Sarasota, he had the best week of practice his knees allowed him to have in two years, and he “felt like I played better and better as the week was going on.’’
The knees. That’s what he says is his problem. And he is never pleased with me for saying that it’s not his knees, but his head. Surely his knees hurt, but until recently, he hadn’t even seemed to slow down much. In the past several months, you have can see it, though.
But he still has a great return of serve, and still does most everything he did before. It just doesn’t look like he believes he can do it, and the darn knee is there, too.
Sometimes, you just have to win matches, and a lot of them, no matter who they’re against, to get the momentum and confidence back.
When Blake won on Sunday, he told reporters that it was a relief. He had been telling his friends that heh didn’t know if he would remember how to actually win a title any more. The way he played, he said, was evidence that he can make it back on tour.
Let’s be realistic. He’s not going to get back to No. 4. Or 10. Or 20. But there is no reason he can’t be in the top 40, or higher.
If he believes. And if he adjusts for his age.
“Of course, you’d rather get back to the Tour level, and be playing back at the top of your game again,’’ Blake told the Savannah Morning News. “But you have to put in work. I want to earn my way back there again.’’
The odds aren’t with him. When Agassi dropped down, he was just 27. Also, he had been a major champ. Blake hasn’t gotten past the quarterfinals of a major. So Blake has age against him, knees against him, and style against him, too. When he won in Sarasota, he said that the young players had fresh legs on him, but that he had experience on them.
Does he use it? Blake is not someone using touch or mixing things up. He goes for winners on most everything. He defends that style, saying that through years of working his way up, he tried all styles, and this was the one that suited his talents best.
Problem is, he hits awfully flat in a game when so much power is coming at him. To keep the ball on the court, he has to be in perfect position, and that might require perfect health in his knees.
It’s not easy for aging athletes to make changes. They just don’t want to. What they have done has worked for them.
Blake is going to have to add a little variety if he wants to find any consistency at all.
So this is a long road, but it’s not hopeless. You want to leave on your own terms, and not with a serious drop off. There is no reason to run out the door.
Blake could easily be sitting in a TV booth now. He wants to try again, with his trademark work ethic.
Good for him.