With an overpowering serve and aggressive play Tuesday night, James Blake dispatched defending champion David Nalbandian 6-2, 6-4 and put the rest of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic field on notice that he’s not fading away.
Blake won this tournament in 2002 but insists he’s playing better now than he was then, despite a better ranking nine years ago. But at 31 years old, he understands his prime is in the rearview mirror and that retirement is around the corner. He has assumed something of a different role in American tennis: Blake the teacher.
As so many young U.S. players are growing into prominence, Blake has taken to offering his assistance as a veteran presence - even at the possible expense of his results.
“I’m not going to turn my back on these guys. I’ll do anything I can to help the young guys that I really like — the John Isners, Sam Querreys, Donald Youngs, all of them,” Blake said this week. “They’re good guys, and I want to see them succeed when I’m done. I’m realistic that my career’s not going to last forever, and if they happen to use it against me and beat me once or twice, I’ll be OK with that.”
Much has been said about the collapse of American men’s tennis since the days of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, but camaraderie has replaced it and could engender a rebirth with the next generation. Blake credited the positive chemistry to playing on the ATP Challenger Tour with Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, Robby Ginepri, Taylor Dent and others.
“At Challengers, we were eight-deep at Applebee’s, just kind of scrapping to get by two or three people in a room, just sort of trying to scrape out a living to make it to this level,” Blake said. “So when we made it to this level, that bond is a lot stronger.”
Blake, Roddick and Fish shared a room for Fish’s bachelor party in Las Vegas, and there are plenty more stories of nights out that Blake laughed off and couldn’t tell. Put it all together, and it’s evidence of a supportive relationship among guys of that generation.
Now, that’s trickling down, with Blake ready to take the lessons learned from Sampras and Agassi and Mats Wilander and impart them to Isner, Querrey, Young and other Americans such as Ryan Harrison. Blake has invited Young to train with him in Tampa, Fla., — something agent Carlos Flemming, who represents both, thinks could be a major help.
“I think the biggest advantage any of these young payers can have is be in an environment where they can experience what the top levels of professional tennis are like,” Flemming said in a phone interview. “Any young player who would get a chance to spend some quality time with him — practicing, going through the whole regimen, all those different things — it’s invaluable to a player that’s at the point that Donald is in his career.”
The assistance Blake is willing to offer comes at a price. He has worked with Isner in practice often and partners with him for doubles play. Now he has to face the younger, stronger Isner in the third round at Rock Creek Park on Thursday.
Tuesday evening, while Blake was beating Nalbandian, he noticed fellow U.S. players Ryan Sweeting, Alex Kuznetsov and Phil Simmonds watching courtside and cheering him on.
Helping those kinds of players improve was a dilemma for Blake and his coach, Brian Barker, when Blake was in his mid-20s.
“[Barker is] someone that he’s very good at recognizing what can help players, and he would ask me what I thought — if he should help them and how much in case they came up against me,” Blake said. “When I was 24, 25 or 26 years old, there’s a balance. But at this point of my career, they’re going to have a lot longer careers than me from this point on.”
Blake estimated that tennis gets 5 percent better each year, so one day he said, “I’m going to have to be the first one to admit that they’re better than I ever was.”
Blake is helping that process along. But if his performances this week are any indication, he isn’t ready to give up on his game.
“If they beat me, they beat me,” he said. “I hopefully still have a future up my sleeve, too.”
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