James Blake has delivered dazzle and disappointment in some enthralling New York nights. Honored on opening night at the US Open earlier this week, he’s heard the whispers wondering if this might be his Flushing Meadows Farewell. But dancing on his toes behind the baseline tonight like a boxer eager to beat his opponent to the punch in an entertaining brawl, Blake showed he still knows how to throw a block party and brought a few thousand of his fans along for another memorable ride.
Exhorting the fans inside Louis Armstrong Stadium with the wave of his hand, Blake drew a double fault from a rattled Peter Polansky to break serve then put the hammer down in closing a 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 crowd-pleasing win to surge into the US Open third round tonight.
The Yonkers, N.Y. has spent part of his injury-ravaged season fielding questions about his future, but showed he still has juice left in his 30-year-old legs and plenty of lightning in his electric forehand in reaching the third round for the eighth straight time.
Based on the way Blake worked the crowd into a rousing state it looked like he spent some of his Wednesday evening watching good friend and former Davis Cup teammate Andy Roddick lose focus over a foot fault call in the third set and ultimately fall in four to Serbian Janko Tipsarevic.
A cranky Roddick did not engage a crowd eager to impose itself in that match. Blake wisely broke down the barrier between athlete and audience tonight in bouncing in exuberance on his toes, waving the fans on as the 205th-ranked Canadian qualifier stepped up to serve down break point at 4-all.
The crowd responded with a roar, Polansky’s right arm tightened slightly and he sent a double fault beyond the service box as Blake broke for 5-4.
“People say I’ve been struggling and everything, but I’m still having fun. I’m still having a great time competing,” Blake said. “I still love what I do. Our here, I love it even more.”
As a kid, Blake and older brother Thomas, who was in the support box, tried sneaking into the Open. He needed a wild card to gain entry into his 10th Open and the 108th-ranked Blake played with the passion of a man eager to extend his stay for at least another couple of days.
Hobbled by a right knee injury that sidelined him for two months, caused his ranking to plummet to outside the top 100 for the first time in five years, Blake has looked distracted and disconnected at times this year.
Returning to the place where he’s produced some of his most memorable tennis, Blake regained the buzz in his game and reconnected with the fans all too eager to show their support. The result was Blake turning a two-man competition into a festive match in which he fed off the crowd participation.
“When I have the fans behind me, they helped me get through that at the end,” Blake said. “I’m going to show some emotion out there and try to get the fans involved. I’m going to do my best. That’s what they can expect from me.”
Of course, working in concert with the crowd to dispatch a qualifier playing in his first Grand Slam main draw appearance is one thing, can Blake lift both his level of play and the fans along with him in a potential third-round clash against third-seeded Novak Djokovic?
“I would expect it to be a pretty good match,” Blake said. “He has one of the more underrated serves in the game. He’s got a great service motion, a great serve, one of the best backhands in the game. His movement is unbelievable. I’m going to have to play well, that’s for sure.”
Blake can still unload on his mammoth forehand that sometimes comes off his strings sounding as if its hit with all the force of a steel door slamming shot. But he will be up against one of the best athletes and hard-court movers in the sport in Djokovic, who induces errors out of opponents with his ability to transition from defense to offense and run down virtually any shot. Djokovic is a more consistent player, which puts more pressure on Blake to squeeze shots closer to the lines in a search for open space.
“If I got out there and I start dictating, I feel like I have a good shot,” Blake said. “But there’s also a good shot that he comes out and plays great tennis and proves why he’s No. 3 in the world right now. But it will be on Ahse Stadium. I think I’ll have pretty good crowd support. Hopefully, I can come up with some of my best as I’ve been known to do before.”
Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.