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Mr. Nice Guy

by Steve Flink

At the end of 2006, after celebrating his best year as a professional tennis player, James Blake found himself in lofty territory. He had established himself as the No. 1 player in the United States of America. He had concluded a spirited campaign by ascending to No. 4 in the world. He had every reason to believe in himself after capturing five tournaments over the course of a stellar year. As if to underline his progress, he made it to the final of the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.

James Blake hasn't won a tournament since Sydney at the start of the year.
With that kind of success, Blake headed into 2007 knowing that close followers of the game were now expecting more top of the line tennis from him. In turn, he undoubtedly was hoping and anticipating more from himself. When he won Sydney at the start of the year, Blake seemed to be reaffirming his status as one of the sport's leading competitors. He appeared to be telling us that he belonged up there near the top, and would settle for nothing less than the best from himself.

But he has not won a tournament since Sydney, and he has not played this year with the conviction, discipline, and determination he needs to remain in the upper echelons. To be sure, he has time to redefine his status as a front line player, but he must make his move swiftly and convincingly in the immediate weeks ahead during the U.S. Open Series. He did well last week in Los Angeles, reaching the final before losing 7-6 (7), 5-7, 6-2 to Radek Stepanek.

Nonetheless, he could have done even better. Blake had been victorious in three of his four previous clashes against Stepanek. This loss in Los Angeles reminded me of too many Blake setbacks. He is a gifted shot maker who owns one of the game's greatest and most explosive forehands, he is capable of brilliant sprees of almost unconscious winners, but he is not in the same class as a match player. The first set was the key to his chances against Stepanek, and Blake put himself in an excellent position to win it. He was serving at 5-3 in the tie-break, but then he delivered a costly double fault.

Nevertheless, Blake took the next point to reach double set point. Stepanek released a first serve that the American could not handle. Now serving at 6-5, Blake approached the net with a backhand down the line from too deep a position, leaving himself glaringly vulnerable to Stepanek's forehand crosscourt passing shot winner. Stepanek saved one more set point at 6-7, collecting three points in a row to run out the set. Although Blake managed to salvage the hard fought second set, he was beaten emphatically in the third by a player who was serving too well down the stretch.

And yet, it all could have turned out so much better for Blake if he had not squandered his chances in the opening set. At the highest levels of the game, the great players stamp their authority by knowing what is required of them when the biggest points are contested. Roger Federer uncannily goes for his shots in uninhibited fashion and often raises the stakes with his capacity to bring out his best when the pressure is most intense. Rafael Nadal turns up the volume of his intensity and gives nothing away, daring opponents to find a way to beat him when the chips are down. They get into crunch time, deal with it confidently and even audaciously, move past the dangerous zones in a match, and finish their business without looking back.

Blake has done that sporadically, but not nearly often enough in his career. He does have weaknesses that contribute to his woes. His second serve lets him down frequently, his first serve is not a consistently reliable weapon, and even his improved backhand can still be problematic. But the view here is that Blake's difficulties are not primarily technical or even tactical; more than anything else, he needs to be more obstinate and resolute. He must come to understand that it is not his job to be a nice guy on the tennis court. It is not his place to join the fans in raving about Federer's sublime talent while he is in the process of trying to beat the world champion.

It is not going to do James Blake any good to be so reverential toward his adversaries, who will not return the favor to him. He deserves to be admired immensely for his qualities as a sportsman and a human being. No one will ever take that away from him; everyone recognizes that he is deservedly popular among his colleagues and in the court of public opinion. But Blake is 27, heading toward the September of his career, trying to make the most of whatever is left of his prime. I don't know if he is cut out to win a major event, but I do know this: he needs to drive himself to another competitive place, a place where he will settle for nothing less than the best he has to offer.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com

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