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.