He’s long been known as a guy too nice to win big events and far too suspect in long matches.
His result Wednesday, falling to world No. 4 and US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro 10-8 in the fifth set, will do nothing to remove those stigmas. After the show he and the game’s young giant put on for four hours and 17 minutes, it doesn’t really matter. We’ll still miss James Blake when he’s gone.
Now 30, it seems both a recent and a distant memory when Blake peaked at No. 4 himself, all the way back in November 2006. Recent because most of the characters he was dueling with—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Roddick, namely—are still dominant presences in the game. Distant because Blake’s results haven't been at that standard for some time.
In 2007, he backed up Roddick and the Bryan Brothers in sealing a Davis Cup victory for the United States but failed to repeat his prior year’s appearance at the tour championships in China.
The next two years mostly brought disappointments for Blake. He reached the quarters at the Australian Open in ’08 and the fourth round in ’09 but otherwise saw the second week of no major events.
A big part of his problem is his game. His explosive speed has few peers in the men’s game, but Blake’s play is very reliant on his forehand. The ball he hits off of his dominant wing is a thing to behold when it clicks, but its utter flatness guarantees numerous unforced errors.
As Blake has gotten older, his errors have mounted disproportionately to his brilliant winners.
The US Open is the site of perhaps his most memorable match of his career—his epic encounter with Andre Agassi in the 2005 quarters—but in 2009 he exited meekly in round three against Tommy Robredo. At that point, Blake split with long-time coach Brian Baker.
But, the first hint of Blake’s intentions for 2010 came this winter when he joined Roddick in announcing he would not play Davis Cup. Now in his fourth decade, Blake’s time remaining on tour is limited, and he means to have your attention before he goes.
He had the eyes of much of the tennis-viewing world in round two. Had not the unretired Justine Henin been fighting a topsy-turvy duel with Elena Dementieva at the same time, he may well have had it all.
In del Potro, Blake faced one of the only men to have ever beaten both Federer and Nadal based on the sheer velocity of his ground strokes, promising one match that would not be decided by finesse.
After del Potro captured the first set, Blake forced a second set tiebreak and his forehand suddenly came to life. After losing his opening service point, he shocked the crowd by stealing both of del Potro’s, putting Blake in a lead he would not surrender. Suddenly, it was 2006 again, and Blake was the last human being on earth anyone would want to hit a second serve to.
He captured the third set, and del Potro the fourth. The young Argentine had the more complete game, with a deadlier backhand and more brutally effective serve, but at times, the American’s forehand defied belief. Blake broke to open the fifth set, only to surrender it back to del Potro. The Argentine broke to serve for the match at 6-5, only to have the American extend it to six-all.
At eight-all Blake saved two match points, but del Potro’s more effective backhand, especially on passing shots, sealed the break, which he finally served out.
Blake finished with more than 80 winners on the night, a dozen more than his huge opponent. Both men committed 60 unforced errors, with del Potro winning a total of 205 points to Blake’s 200.
The American, long lauded for his sportsmanship and affability, falls to 4-13 lifetime in five-setters. He leaves the Australian Open having missed a chance for an upset. However, he helped give us the best match of the AO so far, and signaled 2010 will be no farewell tour.
After a painful loss, that may be small consolation to Blake, but tennis fans should be excited by the next 10 months of memories he’ll give us.