Last week at the Farmers Classic, James Blake saved two match points versus Feliciano Lopez and, in his attempt to save a third one, hit a backhand passing shot that looked like it caught the edge of the line but was called out. A Hawk-Eye review just showed the ball was out by only a hair giving Lopez the match. If Blake’s shot had somehow caught the line and if he had managed to pull out the win to enter the semifinals, I guarantee you the tennis press would be writing glowing articles about the prospect of a Blake “summer comeback tour”.
Instead, after Blake lost another close three set match to Ryan Sweeting in the opening round of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington D.C, the press has already forgotten Blake’s wins in Los Angeles and have fired up their laptops to write what is an easier story to get out in time for the evening edition or whatever they call it in today’s 24/7 web news cycle – when will Blake will retire.
Despite Blake answering with a definitive “no” when asked last week in L.A. if retirement was on his mind, the number of times the “r” word popped up in articles after Blake’s loss in D.C. surprised me. After his loss in L.A., Blake seemed relaxed and even upbeat about his prospects moving forward this year. Blake said then, “I’m playing fine but I just have to play more matches and be more aggressive to win. Just have more confidence to do it in the big occasions after not having done anything in the last three or four months. And I guess it will take a little more time, but I know now it’s pretty darn close.” But the tennis media isn’t willing to wait for Blake’s prospects in the next few months or so. Instead, most of the articles written after his loss in D.C. were about Blake’s current win/loss record of 10-12 (bearing in mind that most of those losses took place before Blake went on anti-inflammatories) and how Blake’s timing and consistency on his trademark go for broke groundstrokes are well off. I find that last observation amusing since many of the other pros who were at L.A., including Andy Murray and Sam Querrey, also weren’t up to their finest form after coming back from a long post-Wimbledon break.
But I think the main reason Blake isn’t getting much love or support from the press is that Blake is perceived more for his past glories and disappointments. Several times in L.A., reporters would ask Blake not about his current health and his focus on the rest of 2010, but on his past play for the U.S. Davis Cup team, his now classic quarterfinal match against Andre Agassi at the 2005 U.S. Open (which many feel Blake lost more than Agassi won it) and his thoughts on the current generation of American players John Isner, Sam Querrey and even Andy Roddick who’s only two years younger than Blake. It’s not that I’m opposed to asking players questions about past wins or accomplishments, but when those inquiries are weighted too much in the “What would you say is your finest achievement category?” then you know pretty much what story the reporter is going to run with no matter how well you played on court today.
Can James Blake make it back into the top 50 or even top 20? Who knows. We’ll have to wait and see how his health and a crop of younger players factor into all of that. For me, the real sign that James Blake is still relevant on the tour is the amount of support he received from fans while in Los Angeles who didn’t really care about Blake’s current win/loss ratio or even knew about his recent knee troubles. All they saw on court was a player who, although he doesn’t have a Grand Slam title like Roddick, comes across to them as the likable and articulate veteran who still delights fans with his speedy shotmaking style. Perhaps it is this support from fans who still believe in Blake’s future, rather than dwelling on his past, that could propel him to one more great accomplishment to add to his history.