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The Good Bully

September 3, 2010 | by

I feel a certain kinship with James Blake. Photograph by Hopping Donkey.

James Blake doesn’t like to make it easy.  Not even to cheer for him.  One fears association with the odious J-Block, the fans who wear Blake T-shirts and chant Blake’s name and act like asses. It’s hard, too, to embrace a guy who shouts “my house,” as Blake did yesterday after defeating the Canadian Peter Polansky in the second round. Plus, he’s been canonized as an “inspirational figure,” honored on opening night in a ceremony called “Reach & Dream” for being a biracial kid from Yonkers who endured scoliosis, career-threatening injuries and illness, etc.  It’s best to avoid athletes who are considered heroes.

Still, I was pulling for him yesterday, and I’ll be pulling for him when he takes on the third seed, Novak Djokovic. Blake is a former top-five player, but he is old and aching, and he needed a wild card to play here. He’s one of the most stubborn players on the tour and one of the most fragile, and therefore one of the most interesting to watch. Blake's flurry of forehand errors during the first-set tiebreak yesterday, including one total mishit, was self-doubt made manifest. He has a propensity to over-hit and to mope, “woe-is-meing around the court,” as commentator Pam Shriver put it during Wimbledon. As someone who over-hits and woe-is-mes around the court, I feel a certain kinship. And, as it happens, Blake once inspired me, though not because of his dramatic story.

I first saw Blake play when he was a Harvard sophomore and I was a high school junior visiting the college. I had heard of Harvard’s dreadlocked wonder and wanted to see him for myself.  There were a couple of highly-ranked juniors on my high school team, but I’d never watched any player like Blake. When the ball came off his racket, the laws of physics were suspended. At one point, his opponent hit a deep backhand, forcing Blake onto his back foot and out of position, and then unleashed a sharp cross-court forehand. Blake, who had been scrambling to regain his footing, reversed directions at the moment of content, broke into a flat sprint, and—impossibly!—reached the ball inside the service line of the adjacent court, where he ripped a forehand that sent the ball along a bending and dipping path. It seems silly now—Rafa Nadal hits that forehand practically every match—but I really thought I’d witnessed a miracle. All my efforts to be cool were abandoned. I was on my feet, shrieking, hopping, fluttering my hands.

It was the most memorable moment of the weekend. I sometimes think that it was one of the most memorable moments of my teenage years. What has stuck with me even more vividly than incredibility of the shot was the way Blake looked up into stands after he hit it, a stupid grin on his face. It was clear that he wasn’t looking to the tiny crowd of parents and friends to ratify how awesome he was. Something special had just happened, and he wanted us to be a part of it. And we were.

Blake went pro that summer. He had some early success, but after struggling with grief, illness, and injuries (including a broken neck, suffered when he collided with a net-post), he fell out of the top 200 and found himself playing Challenger matches, the minor leagues. Methodically he worked his way back, and then at the 2005 U.S. Open, he made it to the semis, where he lost to Andre Agassi in a fifth-set tiebreak, in what was one of the best U.S. Open matches ever played.

Blake has always been able to take anyone to five sets, even now. At the Australian Open this year, he lost to last year’s U.S. Open champion, Juan Martin del Potro, in five. It’s a particular talent, losing matches so consistently in that way, and it’s not clear whether he wants to win too much or not enough. He plays an uncompromisingly aggressive, all-or-nothing style. “It’s almost like being a bully out there,” an espn3.com commentator described Blake’s game yesterday afternoon. “If he’s on, he’s a good bully.” I’m not totally sure what that means, but it sounds right.  I have my own unjustifiable, sentimental theory for why Blake finds himself in so many epic matches: he plays to be remembered, to be part of something special, more than he plays to win.

6 COMMENTS

6 Comments

  1. mary lee | September 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I’ve been hoping you’d write about Tipsarevic. He seems to be such an interesting, intelligent hipster kind of a guy. I was riveted the other night, watching him take out Roddick with such dignity and evenness.
    I can’t bear to watch James Blake anymore, as I just can’t stand to hear about what he’s overcome one more time!

  2. Louisa Thomas | September 3, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Totally fair!
    It’s not every tennis player who has a quote from The Idiot tattooed on his arm, right?

  3. Mary Lee | September 3, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    …but I did mean to tell you how I loved your description of yourself shrieking, hopping, fluttering your hands! It makes me smile every time I remember it.

  4. Louisa Thomas | September 4, 2010 at 11:57 am

    The Monfils-Tipsarevic match is on right now (on usopen.org if cbs isn’t showing it). Talk about intelligent, hipster kind of tennis! Even Monfils’s knee tape looks great.

  5. Louisa Thomas | September 4, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    How they’re both playing with the pace of the ball, with tempo and spin! How Monfils is pulling Tipsarevic into no man’s land!

    Over on Ashe, Jankovic is down a set to Kanepi. But I love Jankovic’s backhand down the line–my favorite shot.

    Somebody turn off the comments, before I start live blogging.

  6. Michael O'D | September 8, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Blake is like the Red Sox–he’ll only break your heart. My wife got us tickets to last year’s US Open, and I stayed out past one in the morning at Arthur Ashe to watch him lose in the third round to Tommy Robredo. There’s something magical about New Yorkers cheering on one of their own on that court. I remember the Agassi match at the 2005 Open that you describe. We didn’t have cable, so I went to the local bar to watch it. This was when flat-screen TVs, the advent of HD, and the USTA’s switch to blue courts made armchair watching a sumptuous experience. I stayed until closing time, and then caught the score in the paper the next morning. My usual bed-time, by the way, is nine o’clock.

    Several things stand out about Blake and make me root for him against all reason. One is the way he, like Agassi, grows a playoff beard during grand slam tournaments; you can measure his success by the whiskers on his chin. Another is the brutality of his forehand, a widow-maker in a game that used to played exclusively on lawns, in whites. (Contrast this with his lovely and graceful one-handed backhand.) A third is the manliness of his occasional grunt, which, in an era of pervasive on-court shrieking, sounds like something out of a Rage Against the Machine song. And finally, I like the generosity with which he’ll frequently say, sotto voce, “too good” when his opponent hits a winner.

    The commentators are saying this may be his last US Open. I hope so! I hope not!

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