James Blake: Inside an Enigma

Julian JohnsonCorrespondent IApril 16, 2009

INDIAN WELLS, CA - MARCH 16: James Blake congratulates Fernando Gonzalez of Chile after their match during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 16, 2009 in Indian Wells, California.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Two scenes from a career.

Scene One: US Open 2005.  Blake plays Paul Bunyan to Andre Agassi's virgin forest for two and one half sets.  Bark and wood shavings litter Agassi's side of the court as Blake fires ground stroke and return winners with impunity. 

The superior foot speed, the brutal forehand with its short back swing, and ruthless follow through have Andre's chin on his chest and shoulders sagging.

Up a break in the third, JB gets sloppy with his axe and the resurrection commences. He's in a generous mood, now, and his once tight game sprinkles gifts liberally to all corners of the court. It's Christmas in August.

This generosity allows Andre to oil his creaky groundies and quickly, his pace, depth and accuracy are loosed with winners flowing freely.  Blake's  game, meanwhile, needs a lube job.

Scoreline: 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-6. Is this match scripted or what?!  In the end, a tight, taut tiebreaker ends with the right man and sentimental favorite winning.   Captivating.  Thrilling.  Absurd.  Everyone's happy, even the defeated.  This doesn't sit right.  Everyone likes a graceful loser but...The postmatch interview provides an important clue. 

Blake says, paraphrasing, that if he has to lose to someone, he's glad its Andre.  What?! Who says that?  Connors/McEnroe/Borg/Federer?!  And the thing is, he meant it.

Scene Two: The following year, US Open 2006, Andre's last.  Blake exits the tunnel heading to the stadium court for his first match—dressed in an Andre Agassi tied-dyed, Nike monstrosity, an outdated outfit that the great man wore a decade before.  And with a handkerchief tied around his head to boot. 

This is Blake's idea of a tribute?!  To me, its a nightmare, an embarrassment.  What self respecting professional pays that kind of tribute to their "hero" who also happens to be a peer, and an opponent.  He might as well have dressed up in drag.  Wait a minute...he did.

There are other examples of the same deferential, ingratiating tendencies in Mr. Blake, qualities that are in no champion's makeup. Champions don't smile in defeat or talk about being glad to lose to somebody; they hate losing to anybody.  Champions are bitter, petty, nasty in defeat. I love that about them.  

And the best tribute you can pay to your hero is to destroy them.  That's what all the greats have done to the previous generation.  They respect their heroes so much that they butcher them and leave their cadaver in Grand Central Station. 

The greatest form of flattery you can show a champion is murder. You show them how dangerous you think they are by making each point a crime scene.

That's what Ken Norton did to Ali and Monica Seles did to Chrissie and Andre and Pete did to Jimbo and McTantrum; it's what all the other little baby faced assassins do when they crave that mother's milk of being top dog. You don't get there by imitation or flattery or playing small at critical moments in a big match. 

I want Blake to win one and believe he can win one, preferably the US Open.  Its not likely, but he has the physical tools and the shots. He could train A LOT harder (he looks soft) and he could so use a new coach/tactician/trainer to wring the maximum from him in the next couple of years.

He is loyal to a fault, but if he doesn't become loyal to his gifts, his career will end up being a double fault, foot fault. 

James, I believe in you. But you gotta change.