James Blake Back in the Minors. Grinding it out or in Denial?

James Blake

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.

That does not sound exciting, I know. For so long, Blake was the No. 2 face of American tennis, behind Andy Roddick. Now, he’s not even on the tennis map anymore, really.

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.

Blake and Andre Agassi

“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.


About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

One response to “James Blake Back in the Minors. Grinding it out or in Denial?

  • cgHipp

    I feel like Blake IS in denial – not about whether he can achieve a comeback, but whether he can achieve one without improving his tactics. I have always been a Blake fan, but there are times when I feel like his on-court mentality is no better than that of a club player. He seems to feel that his forehand = the best forehand he is capable of hitting, so that even when he’s having an off day, he keeps going for that “perfect” shot that he thinks is his average shot. I rarely see him change his tactics during a match; his strategy seems to be to try harder rather than trying something ELSE. He’s a very bright guy (and, I agree, a hard worker) whose intelligence is not always on display on the court.

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