FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – A streaking James Blake caught up to the ball before it expired, pushed a precise pass up the line and danced across the court with a fist-pump during the second-set tie breaker against Novak Djokovic tonight. Blake still has a burst, but Djokovic put an end to his US Open run.
Playing pivotal points with precision, Djokovic won five consecutive games to open the match and quell the crowd then put down a second-set uprising in registering a 6-1, 7-6(4), 6-3 victory on a windy night to advance to the US Open fourth round.
Because he plays with more variety and can put more air under his shots, Djokovic can dial down his play when the elements require more safety and net clearance, whereas Blake basically hits the same hard flat shots time after time that gave him little margin for error.
“It’s a big mental struggle when you have such a strong wind to find a way how to try to play good tennis, especially if you have somebody across the net who is so aggressive, taking everything early and playing a risky game,” Djokovic said. “I think I was serving very well. It was a high percentage of first serves in. It was important in these conditions.”
Blake earned break points in the first game of the match only to see Djokovic, whose serve has been shaky at times this season, drill successive aces to erase both break points and ignite his first-set run. Djokovic plays with more spin than Blake, he takes the shorter preparation steps to set up for his shots and controls his game amid the bluster better than Blake.
“It was tough, tough conditions. He did a great job of handling them,” Blake said. “He’s one of the best defenders in the game, which makes it tough on a night like that where I need to rely on my power and speed to sort of dictate and move forward. It’s tough when you need to get into position and the ball can move one way or the other. You are not going to hit it cleanly. If I don’t hit it perfect, he’s too good of a counter-puncher. He hurt me too many times when I was in position and in my head to win the point. He did a great job of turning it around.”
Since Djokovic’s draining five-set win over Serbian Davis Cup teammate Viktor Troicki in the first round in which he found back from a two set to one deficit to earn a 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory, he’s run through six straight sets. And tonight’s match was ideal preparation for his fourth-round clash with Blake’s former Florida neighbor and long-time golfing buddy Mardy Fish.
“We had a tough one here a couple of years back at the US Open,” Djokovic said. “I think he’s playing his best tennis at this moment. He’s moving really well. He’s serving good as he served always. He has a lot of talent. He’s recognizing the moment, coming to net. He has a lot of variety in the game. I guess I have to be on top of the game to be able to win.”
Though Djokovic is unbeaten in four matches with Fish, the Vero Beach, Florida native has taken a set in three of those four meetings. Djokovic beat Fish, 7-6(5), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(3) in the 2006 US Open before Fish transformed himself with a fitness and nutrition regimen. They faced off most recently in Indian Wells in March with Djokovic prevailing 6-1, 0-6, 6-2.
Five-time US Open champion Roger Federer said Fish earned his respect before his 30-pound weight loss.
“I always thought he was an incredibly good player, regardless of his weight, to be honest. I think it’s great to show maybe other players, too, to see what’s possible at a later stage in your career, if you come up with some new ideas,” Federer said. “It’s great to see him playing well, doing well. He’s a nice guy. He’s always been talented, so we knew that.”
Fish is playing for his second trip to the US Open quarterfinals.
New York fans showed two-time quarterfinalist Blake their appreciation when he was honored on opening night of the US Open. Djokovic showed Blake the door tonight.
The inevitable “is Blake done?” speculation began before Blake was even done walking out the door of his post-match press conference. Blake insists he’s intent on playing next season.
“I really hope that wasn’t my last match on Arthur Ashe Stadium,” Blake said. “I definitely want to be back next year. If it was (my last match), you know, I competed my heart out. I did everything I could. But I think I got more in me and I think I’m going to be back there. Maybe more night matches, some more excitement for the crowds, some good times. I definitely believe that. I hope it comes true next year.”
Clearly, it’s unlikely Blake will ever return to the heights he ascended when he reached No. 4 in the world, but to suggest Blake is done because he was swept by the No. 3 in the world after an injury-plagued season in which he never really found his form is foolish.
This is a man who came back from a broken bone in his neck after his horrific collision with a net post and a bout with Zoster that left one side of his face frozen to play the best tennis of his life. If Blake has shown you anything aside from a ferocious forehand and lighting speed around the court, it’s his willingness to work his way back and not back down from a challenge.
“Once I got hurt in ’04 and got sick, I never planned on this career as a marathon,” Blake said. “I tried to treat it as a sprint, every match being its own sort of entity, working hard to win that. If it’s my last, it’s my last. If that came at 25 when I blew out my knee, if that came at 30 when I do something to my back so be it. I’m going to treat every match as a sprint and just do my best every time. When it ends, it ends. I don’t feel like right now I’m out there looking for charity. I think I can play with just about anyone still and I don’t think I’m at my best physically right now.”
If Blake can regain his health, is he willing to make the adjustments to his game to make the best use of his ability. Contrast the court sense and dynamic all-court game Ryan Harrison showed in his five-set loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky with the tennis Blake played tonight. Harrison, who is not nearly as quick around the court as Blake, understands that tennis is a sport that requires the ability to play offense and defense and the knowledge of when to transition.
The former Harvard all American doesn’t need tennis and tennis doesn’t need him, but Blake still brings the buzz and class to court and still believes he’s got something left in the tank.
“Even if I’m not 100 percent right now I don’t feel like I’m hurting the game by being out here,” Blake said. “I’m not on a pity tour just getting beat up first round every week by kind of nobodies. I lost to a pretty darn good player. I’m playing okay and I know I can play better because the preparation can be better.”
Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.