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James Blake Needs To Change Paths

September 7, 2010
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James Blake did a good job in justifying his wild card into the US Open, but it may be a case of too little too late. The 108th ranked American made it through to the third round where he fell in straight sets to Novak Djokovic. There were some flashes of vintage Blake, some screaming forehand winners reminded the audience why he was once a top 5 player, but the errors came in droves and despite a brave second set there was never the feeling he stood any real chance. At 30 years of age, retirement is a the big question surrounding Blake. Yet he continues to brush off retirement, remaining firm in his belief he has still got more in the tank. Following his loss to Djokovic, Blake confirmed he still believes in himself; “I really hope this wasn’t my last match in Arthur Ashe Stadium. I think I’ve got more in me.”

Believing is one thing but executing, as Melanie Oudin’s early round loss reminded us, is quite another. Blake may want to fight back once more and make a late-career comeback, but the problem has never been with the American’s heart, whose comebacks from scoliosis and a broken neck captured the hearts of fans everywhere, but with his brain. The fact remains, Blake is still playing the same low percentage high-risk tennis he was four years ago, the only difference is it isn’t working anymore. His game couldn’t keep up with the times, whilst other players added variety and executed certain game plans, Blake continued to attempt winners at every half-opportunity. Against Djokovic in New York it was as obvious as ever. Whilst Djokovic played clever, consistent tennis, pulling the trigger when the time was right, Blake pummeled brainless backhands wide of the line and went for broke on shots that were never easy balls to begin with. He hit his stride in the second set, but his success was never going to last. The unforced errors were inevitable, and the New York crowd were silenced once again.

It is exactly this go-for-broke game that is bringing Blake down. What is a really frustrating is that it never had to be this way. Blake possesses some of the best movement on tour and he is incredibly fast. At age 30, Blake was getting to balls in the Djokovic match that many players in their 20s wouldn’t reach. His defense has become his strength. Djokovic struggled to hit winners against Blake not because he was playing defensively, but because Blake was tracking down ball after ball. Off the back-foot Blake was very effective, he just seemed desperate to get off it every single time.  With more variety than he tends to show, Blake can hit effective slices, volleys, and runs down dropshots with ease. Yet none of this is any good if he continues to pummel his forehand at every opportunity.

James Blake can make a comeback. He has the talent, the weapons, and the will. What he needs to do now is go back to the drawing board. Hire a new coach. Reinvent himself. Yes, at 30 it is daunting, much like changing career paths, but if Blake is serious about ridding himself of wild cards and qualifying tournaments a reinvention is exactly what it will take. It’s time for him to use his best weapon; his defense. Without it, he’ll be heading along the road to retirement at the same speed as one of his missed forehands.

Novak Djokovic (l.), the No. 3 men's tennis player in the world, shakes hands with James Blake. Djokovic wins the third-round match Saturday 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-3.
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