I’ve taken some flack from some readers of this blog who believe that I am too harsh on James Blake. To one friend who commented that I really needed to cut James some slack, I replied that perhaps that was the problem and that she should read my entry on whether he wears Spanx. She has not spoken to me since. Some people just can’t take a joke.
Of course when James beat my fave Roger in Beijing, several people who shall remain nameless called me to jeer. I told them that they keep missing the point of my criticism of Blake. I said that James can beat anybody on any given day in the best two sets out of three. He is an aggressive shot maker with a go-for-broke style of playing that makes him a dangerous opponent against anyone, including yes my favorite Federer. So facing Federer in two-sets out of three, of course James had a chance of winning.
But if he’s that good, I countered, how come he did not go on to win a medal in Beijing? Because he does not have the staying power required to win tournaments consistently. Which explains why he lost to Fernando Gonzalez in the next round despite holding three consecutive match points. And then lost the chance for bronze to Novak Djokovic. Yes, James is that unreliable.
The simple truth is that it is very difficult to keep making shot after shot. It is difficult to keep relying on your speedy footwork. It is difficult to keep nailing the lines and pockets from impossible angles. Sure these make for incredible ‘points-of-the-match’ moments that often get highlighted on ESPN, but as a strategy for consistent winning it is not going to work. It gets you fame but not many results. James is almost 29 years old. He will be 30 come December 2009. To paraphrase Danny Glover in ‘Lethal Weapon’, he is getting too old for this shit.
I was therefore not at all surprised when Captain Patrick McEnroe announced that he has decided not to include James in the Davis Cup line-up. The official reason given is that Blake was exhausted. The wording of the announcement implied that Blake had made the decision himself: “James is just exhausted physically and mentally after a grueling summer,” McEnroe said. “He said he needed a break and we respect that.”
OK, let me see if I understand this. Davis Cup is scheduled for September 19-21. James Blake bowed out of the US Open on Saturday August 31. So we are to believe that this professional athlete was unable to recover physically in 19 days? That makes no sense whatsoever. Upon reflection, McEnroe’s statement seems to contain more than a whiff of face-saving PR.
I’m not saying that James might not have been tired. Of course, after the beat-downs he received in Beijing from Gonzalez and Djokovic, his physical stores probably did need some topping up. But this did not prevent him from entering the US Open. And between the day he was spanked out of the US Open and the official start of Davis Cup, he would have had almost three weeks to rest and recover. Exhaustion then becomes irrelevant as an explanation of the decision not to include him in the line-up.
His unreliability is however another matter altogether. No better word describes his losses to unknown players like Kei Nishikori and Marcel Granollers, or to the better known but past-his-prime Rainer Schuettler at Wimbledon. You just can’t count on James to deliver consistently.
Now let me be fair. Since the 2001 US Open match when James had Lleyton Hewitt on the wire, only to run out of gas and swallow a bagel in the fifth – since then, James’ fitness has improved tremendously. In fact, I cheered along with everyone else when, at the 2007 US Open, James finally won his first ever five-set match – even though it was against my sweetheart Fabrice Santoro. But sadly, his reliability as a player has not improved one whit. He is hot today, cold tamale.
In Beijing, Blake revealed that he was inspired by being a part of Team USA: “When I go out on the court and when I see USA on my chest, it's just a different kind of pride that you feel going out there. You feel inspired by other athletes. You feel inspired by Michael Phelps, Dara Torres, Tyson Gay, the Dream Team. You're just proud to be a part of it.” And indeed, in 2007, Blake won both of his matches and helped lead Team USA to a record 32nd Davis Cup title. But this year he is apparently too exhausted to try.
On September 9, (10 days after James had been bounced out of the US Open), Captain McEnroe announced that Blake had been replaced by Sam Querrey. The 6 foot 6 inches tall Querrey will be 21 in October. He represents the next generation of American tennis. And if James wasn’t feeling old before this decision was taken, he’s probably starting to feel that way now.
Querrey has been handed the honor of being part of the team that will defend the US in Spain on clay against the likes of Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez. Even with Roddick and the Bryans on the team, it’s hard to believe that the US has a chance in heck of winning. But apparently including James may have been that much more of a handicap. If I were a fan, I would say “Ouch”.