October 14, 2008

The Frustration of the J-Block

I love James Blake.

Have I said that?

And not in the, "Oh my God, you're so hot!" kind of way. But in the "Wow, I really admire how you've handled yourself through everything you've been through and how you've conquered all the bumps in the road and have totally come out on top! You're a role model for any athlete and people in general! Oh -- and you're really hot!" kind of way.

I don't think many people would argue that the journey Blake has had over the last several years has been nothing short of inspirational. He overcame childhood scoliosis and was just hitting his stride in the world of professional tennis when he broke his neck, was diagnosed with shingles and suffered the loss of his father. But he came back stronger than ever, proved he was a real force in tennis, claimed a slew of Tour titles and became the best tennis player in the country, even climbing ahead of former world #1 Andy Roddick.

His dedication to the sport and his magnetic presense on the court is obviously manifested in the loyalty of a group of friends and family that are front and center at every tournament, cheering him on. They can be loud, they can be distracting, but the J-Block has certainly become a staple at any of his matches.

But as one of his biggest fans -- and a J-Block'er in spirit -- even I have to admit that it can be very frustrating to watch James play.

Take for example the 2007 U.S. Open. Blake had for years battled a naggingly disheartening statistic -- he had never won a five-set match. When Frenchman Fabrice Santoro took him to that last and deciding set in the second round, all the pundits wondered if James would be able to shake the monkey off his back and reach his personal milestone. He did, in a game that ended way past midnight, eliciting ardent cheers from fans and his opponent alike.

Two rounds later, though, he lost to Tommy Haas in another five-setter, proving he hadn't quite broken the curse.

Then there was this year's Olympics. James reached an emotional career high when he took out Roger Federer in Beijing, the first time he'd ever notched a victory against the then-#1. Unfortunately he next lost to Fernando Gonzalez in a controversial match that cost him the chance to play for the gold medal.

Later in September he pulled out his fourth five-set win against compatriot Donald Young in the first round at Flushing Meadows. But in the second round I gritted my teeth as I watched him lose the first set to 62nd-ranked Steve Darcis. If the Belgian hadn't withdrawn in the third set with an injury, I fear James may not have made it through.

In the next round he lost in straight sets to Mardy Fish.


This week, Blake gets back on the court for the first time since New York. He's playing in Madrid where Federer is making his own return after taking a three-week break. As the eleventh seed, Blake gets a bye in the first round, but will play Gilles Simon later today. While James has never lost to the Frenchman, Simon nevertheless poses a real threat -- earlier this year he notched wins over Roger in Toronto as well as Novak Djokovic in Marseille and Tommy Haas in Indianapolis.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed and of course hoping Blake not only pulls out the win, but continues deep into the draw. With everyone in the top ten playing at the same tournament, Madrid is a great opportunity to rack up some points and, while it may be a long shot, I'm hoping James earns his first title of what's been a barren 2008.

It's been almost two years since Blake reached his career high #4 ranking after making it to the finals at the Tennis Masters Cup. Since then he's more or less stayed within a stone's throw of the top ten. But every so often I, and a legion of other J-Block supporters, are left to worry that he may soon lose that tenuous grip.

It's strange, in a way -- for all intents and purposes, Blake should be a dominating force on the tennis court. He's got power, a great serve when it's working for him, and a menacing forehand. He's had epic matches against Rafael Nadal (which he won) and Andre Agassi (which he lost) and titles at several top-tier tournaments. And, of course, those fans.

Yet for some reason, he just can't pull out a major win.

But I will continue to root for you, James, whether from the makeshift J-Block I've created on my couch or from the stands when I'm lucky enough to watch you play. And I hope that some day you're able to hold that trophy high above your head with pride.

'Til then: Fire it up one time... Bam!

1 comment:

Kavitha said...

And as I feared, my dear James did in fact lose to Simon two sets to one. With just over three weeks to go before the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, his chances of qualifying have become a little dimmer -- And I am dealt one more frustrating blow.

Regardless I keep my fingers crossed for a strong comeback...maybe not this year, but hopefully in 2009?!