I’ve lost track of the number of times James Blake has pissed me off with his tendency to just give up when the going gets rough. In fact this has happened so often that I now simply refuse to support him. There’s no point. I am stunned that he has never been fined for lack of effort. Some players continue to fight until the very last point in a match. James is not one of them.
Don’t get me wrong, if James is winning, he will keep trying, especially if the matchup is one that allows him to hit his flashy forehands that leave his audience oohing and aahing.
But the minute his opponent starts to get the upper hand, James often seems to just give up. He gets this shitty attitude on court and stops even trying to get to balls. To hell with the fans who have paid their hard-earned money to watch a real tennis match. He is through trying. And he simply and passively concedes defeat.
This is what happened today at Roland Garros in his match against a newcomer, a 19-year-old Latvian names Ernests Gulbis. Gulbis played like he was inspired by the song line “anything you can do I can do better…” Gulbis also seemed to have a much better grasp of when to go for winners [which James always does, regardless], and when to stay his hand and wait for the right moment. Gulbis was the more patient and his game was far more varied and thoughtful.
In the first set, Blake managed to finally break Gulbis, who broke him right back to go up 6-5. Blake held and they went to a tiebreak. Gulbis stepped up his game in the tiebreak, playing a droptastic dropshot to go up to 4-0. Then 5-0. Blake finally woke up and started fighting back but it was too late. He managed to score a total of 2 points in the tiebreak, but folded the minute his opponent moved into net and started applying the pressure. He had lost the first set.
Set 2, James won 6-3. But at 5-3 Gulbis [photo on right] gave him all he could handle and it seemed a fluke that they did not end up back on serve. There was a moment towards the end of the second set when I thought that James would give up. But then Gulbis hit a stray shot and gave James the set. That seemed to inspire some brief fight in James. But when he lost the third set 5-7, it was all over. By the end of the fourth set, he wasn’t even trying to get his racket on some of Gulbis’ serves. Gulbis closed out the match with an easy backhand down the line. James’ body was on the court but his spirit had already flown the coop.
It’s not that Blake lacks talent. He just never seems to win big tournaments. He seems comfortable in his quarterfinalist berth. For the longest while folks wondered if he would ever even win a five-set match. He just did not seem to have the fight in him to last that long. After 10 straight five-set losses, James finally won a five-setter at the 2007 US Open. His opponent was 34-year-old Fabrice Santoro whose body broke down in the final set after 3 hours and 25 minutes of play. By the end of that match, James himself was too exhausted to do more than raise his hand limply. But he had broken through. Phew. Or so I hoped.
Some commentators believe that James freezes up bigger tournaments, such as Grand Slams or Masters Series events. I disagree. Choking is what happens to the inexperienced. Blake is far from that. I believe that he just gives up when he thinks he’s going to lose.
I used to think that the problem was that he would run out of energy because of his go-for-broke style of playing. But after watching several of his matches closely, I realized that that is not it at all. Sure he takes a breather here and there in the middle of a match – I would too if I had to tote around an ass that huge on a daily basis. But taking a breather to recoup one’s energy after several tough exchanges or to recover from a series of sprints is not the same as completely flaming out.
What James seems not to realize – and I conclude this purely on the basis that he seems not to have tried to do a damn thing about it – is that the decision to flame out or not to flame out is entirely under his control. And the minute the going gets rough, he seems to choose Option A. This may be done passively but that does not make it any less of a choice. And it is one that I not only do not understand, but which has made it difficult for me to support him.
Oh James can fight, don’t get me wrong. But his version of fighting seems to consist only of hitting flashy forehands that produce oohs, aahs, and applause from the crowd. When that game plan stops working, he has no Plan B. He then adopts this crappy attitude and simply folds.