- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

As James Blake warmed up for a match Monday at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center stadium, all he had to do was look over his left shoulder to get a glimpse of the player he used to be.

Blake’s name adorns the stadium wall, a symbol of his Legg Mason Tennis Classic title. Ten years before, the 22-year-old pro defeated top-seeded Andre Agassi, a five-time tournament champion, to reach the final. Blake, who was ranked 32nd in the world at the time, would go on to beat Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand the next day to win his first title.

“I still remember match point. I still remember how much fun it was, my parents being here, the fun night out celebrating. I remember it all,” Blake said. “It’s so shocking to me that I look up on that board and that’s a decade ago. It seems like it went by in a flash.”

Blake has won 10 career titles, reached the semifinals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and was ranked fourth in the world at his peak. One of 32 in the men’s singles draw at the Citi Open, he’s back at the site of his first title.

But Blake no longer is the same player who found success within those four walls a decade ago.

He had knee surgery last November and has struggled in competitions since. Blake, now 32, had to relearn to run without putting as much pressure on his knee. He labored over agility drills and sprints to get back to full form. Because when he’s not at his best, he simply can’t keep up.

“I don’t have the ability to compete with these guys if I’m not 100 percent,” Blake said. “I wasn’t able to move, and if I don’t have my legs, I’m really not one of the elite players out here.”

But Monday — in what was just his second match win of the year — he appeared to be right where he belonged. The unseeded Blake upset fifth-seeded Pablo Andujar of Spain 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the first round. But to those who remember a younger, healthier Blake, it might not have seemed like an upset at all.

In the first set, Blake, now ranked 116th in the world, looked rattled, and he couldn’t seem to control his returns.

“I couldn’t get any rhythm in my first set, and that’s frustrating because that’s something I really feel like I can attack guys with,” Blake said after the match. “If they’re not really hurting me with their searches, I feel like I can hurt them with my returns.”

In the second and third sets, that’s exactly what he did. Blake used his power and agility on the court to dominate the match. For a player who hasn’t been able to depend on his legs, the win meant more than just advancement in the tournament. It also was a personal victory.

Blake still is nursing a slightly injured shoulder, but he feels like he’s on his way to normalcy. His serves have become stronger, and he finally feels like he can use his legs — which he considers one of his greatest offensive weapons — at full force.

He’ll compete Wednesday against either Marco Chiudinelli of Switzerland or Horacio Zeballos of Argentina in his quest for another title in Rock Creek Park. But he’s not thinking about the weekend’s championship match just yet. Right now, he’s focusing on getting back to the player he used to be.

“There hasn’t been a game-plan change,” Blake said. “It’s more getting back to the initial game plan.”

It’s the same plan that has worked for him all along. And all he has to do is look at the wall right above him for a reminder.

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