By John Delong, special to EmiratesUSOpen.com??
James Blake experienced a bit of déjà vu on several levels at this year’s Winston-Salem Open.
The 32-year-old New Yorker returned to the city where he starred on U.S. Davis Cup teams in 2001 against India, in 2007 against Spain, and in 2008 against France . He found himself in a second-round showdown on Monday night against longtime friend Andy Roddick, marking the 12th time in their careers that they faced each other. And he wound up losing another tight match – 7-6 (6), 7-6 (6) -- which has been the all-too-often case for him this summer.?
Blake recently sat down with EmiratesUSOpen.com to talk about everything from fatherhood and overcoming injuries, to his eventual retirement and how much he appreciates being given wildcards to aid in his comeback from injuries in recent years.?
Q: You’ve been feeling better and better physically as the summer has gone on. How do you feel going into next week’s US Open??
Blake: Right now, I feel like my game is there, which is the most confidence I’ve had in my game in three years, really since my knee’s been bothering me. Now that it’s healthy I don’t feel like I can only last a certain amount of time. I felt like I needed to race to the finish line or else my knee was going to hold me back. But now that that’s healthy, I feel like my game is finally back to where it needs to be. It’s only a matter of putting some matches together and getting some momentum, so there’s no better time to do it than the Open.?
Q: You had Andy on the ropes on Monday night, serving for the first set with set points in both sets. How do you deal with such a frustrating loss?
?Blake: It’s getting to be a broken record now, where I’m playing well and just not playing the big points as well as I need to. That was OK in [Washington] D.C. That was OK last week. But now I’m pretty frustrated with it. At this point I’m ready to start getting some momentum and getting those wins, and this would have been a great opportunity to do it.
Obviously it would have been a big win over Andy, so I definitely would have liked to have had a few of those points back. But it’s over and done with. The only thing you can do is learn from it and keep putting myself in position. If I keep having set points against a guy the caliber of Andy Roddick, I’m doing the right thing.
The same thing happened in ’05 when I was coming back and I lost a really close match to Andy in the finals at D.C. and then came back and went to the quarters of the Open and lost a pretty close match to Andre Agassi there. So I have to just keep putting myself in these positions.?
Q: How frustrating was it getting for you to deal with the knee problems early in the year??
Blake: That was frustrating. I was definitely on the training table longer than I was on the court. It was making me consider whether I wanted to continue doing it. Early in the season I think I was kidding myself thinking I was ready to compete at this level. My knee wasn’t where it needed to be, and without my legs I’m a pretty average to below average player. But now that I’m well healthy, it makes me remember why I love the sport and love the competition. It’s a ton of fun again now.?
Q: You’ve dealt with so much adversity in your career, with the Zoster and the broken neck, does it make it easier to deal with injuries as time goes on or does it make it even more frustrating??
Blake: I think it puts it a little in perspective. I know it’s just a knee injury; it’s just a shoulder injury. It’s not going to change things long-term. It’s going to affect my career right now, but I always just wanted to have no regrets and if my body gave out and there was no way to perform anymore, there was no reason to get greedy and think I deserved more. Really, I haven’t deserved to have any of the success I’ve had. I’ve just worked hard and tried to get the most out my career. ?
Q: You said you were considering whether you wanted to continue doing this. How seriously were you considering retirement earlier this year??
Blake: I thought about it. To be honest, at the beginning of the summer I wanted to see how this summer goes, see how I feel at the end of the summer. For better or worse, I’d love to when I am done with my career to do it at the US Open. That tournament has meant so much to me and been the site of so many of my highs and emotional moments that I’d like to say goodbye there.
I can’t say I was committed to retiring but I really didn’t want to, but if my body was going to keep being that way and I wasn’t able to compete the way I wanted to, then hopefully I would know when it’s time to step aside and say that I can’t compete. But now I am so there’s no doubt in my mind that I want to keep on going. The fact that this summer I’ve won against guys that are top-30, top-40, and I was up against a guy top-20 last week, it makes me believe I can keep going and keep playing and continue to get better.?
Q: You took a wildcard to play in Winston-Salem, and you have a wildcard for next week’s US Open. Do you view wildcards as a reward for all you have given to the sport throughout your career??
Blake: I definitely think of it as a privilege. I don’t look at it as a reward. I don’t think of it as something I deserve or have earned, because I got some when I was starting out. I said at the beginning of the summer, fortunately or unfortunately, I know I can get a bunch of wildcards, but I don’t want to take them if I can’t compete. I don’t want to be that guy who is taking wildcards away from young guys that can help their careers.
Whether it’s the tournament wanting to put fans in the seats and they hope my name will resonate, or whether in years past they’ve liked me because I do as much as I can to help promote the tournament, I don’t know what it is. But whatever it is, I do appreciate it all the time because I was a kid when I got some and didn’t get some. Even then I didn’t want to think it was something I deserved. I didn’t ever want to get angry that I didn’t get a wildcard. I never have been. I definitely have felt fortunate that I’ve gotten any that I have.?
Q: You’re a new proud papa, with your daughter Riley now two months old. How does it feel to be a father and how has it changed you??
Blake: It has affected my life in such a positive way. It’s hard to describe how much you can love someone immediately. I couldn’t be happier about her. She’s been great. In my opinion, she couldn’t be a better kid. She’s eating well and sleeping well and is just so happy. So I’ve just been overjoyed. The only thing, it’s affected my career because it’s getting tougher and tougher to leave home. I miss her. But I’m thankful for technology and FaceTime and Skype and being able to see her just about every day. That definitely helps.?
Q: You’ve always been a fan favorite here throughout your career and you had the majority of the crowd pulling for you against Andy. How does it feel to have that kind of support??
Blake: It’s fun. It makes you feel good to know the fans are still interested in you and obviously they love tennis down here. It’s really exciting every time I go out on the court when I’m in the States and I get that kind of support.
People recognize that I’m having fun out on the court, and I hope they’re having fun in the stands, because this is a game, it’s supposed to be fun. It’s great when you have a new tournament – this is in its second year – and it’s great to have the enthusiasm to sustain the tournament for many years. It looks like that is happening here. The promoters here have done a great job of getting an unbelievable field and getting the fans interested. I know that from my Davis Cup experience, too. The crowds were great here during Davis Cup.