- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

James Blake is poised to take over American tennis. His climb to the top began a year ago in Washington.

Blake entered last year’s Legg Mason Tennis Classic unseeded and ranked No. 101 in the world. He made an improbable run to the finals before falling to Andy Roddick 7-5, 6-3. That performance would serve as the starting point to his quest for a No. 1 ranking.

“Last year when I started my comeback, I gained a lot of confidence coming through here to the finals,” said Blake, who now sits atop the Legg Mason draw and is ranked No. 5 in the world. “So it’s been a lot of fun being here. … If I just keep getting better, keep improving, doing the small things right and doing everything I can, maybe getting a couple breaks here and there, who knows? Maybe next year at this time I will be saying I am really close to being No. 1 and climbing the mountain that is Roger Federer.”

With Roddick’s career in a bit of a funk and Andre Agassi’s farewell tour entering its last leg, Blake appears to be the future of American tennis.

He has won three singles titles this year, including a three-set victory against Roddick in Indianapolis earlier this month. Before this season, Blake had lost to Roddick every time in six tries. But Blake is 2-0 against the former No. 1 player in 2006 — sparking a fierce but friendly rivalry that won’t continue in the District after Roddick withdrew with a strained muscle on his left side yesterday.

“I don’t really like playing against [Roddick] because he beats me most of the time,” said Blake, who is scheduled to face fellow American Kevin Kim tonight in his first match. “We have a lot of fun. He is a great guy. … We both want the best for each other, but then when we are out there we are fighting our heads off to win, and then right after the match we are back to being best friends. So there is definitely no animosity, no bad blood between us or anything like that.”

Blake and Roddick have bonded during Davis Cup competition. Blake said he and Roddick are focused on putting together a Davis Cup championship run for the United States. The 2006 team, consisting of Blake, Roddick and the Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob, will face Russia in the semifinals in September.

“The short answer is yes, [Blake] is ready to take over,” Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. “Obviously I would love to see Roddick get back to where he used to be. I look at it as No. 1 and No. 1-A. … James has taken his game up to the highest level. The question is can James stay there? Roddick has been there and established himself. From a selfish perspective I would like to see them both in the top five.”

Blake’s assault on the tennis world, which includes a 37-15 record with more than $745,000 in prize money this year, almost never happened.

In May 2004, Blake slipped on a practice court in Rome and crashed head first into the net post — fracturing his neck.

The injury could have been devastating, but Blake already had overcome scoliosis, a condition that confined him to a back brace when he was 13. This was just another setback he thought he would overcome.

Six weeks later his father, Tom, died of stomach cancer. If that was not enough for the 24-year-old, he contracted a shingles-like condition a month later that temporarily paralyzed the left side of his face.

“It seemed insurmountable,” Blake said. His ranking plummeted to No. 210 by April 2005, its lowest position since December 2000.

Blake remained focused, steadily climbing the rankings since being blindsided by the odd string of injuries and tragedy. He said he is excited about returning to the site of his tennis rebirth and the place he won his first career singles title in 2002.

“It would be great to have my first multiple title, to have the first title that I could say I have won more than once,” Blake said. “But there are lot of great players this week. … I know it’s not going to be easy.”

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