James Blake is arguably the most popular American male ever not to have won a Grand Slam title.
He’s Denzel Washington in shorts – intelligent, well mannered and extremely talented.
For the first time in his career, the 26-year-old is slated to end a year ranked in the top 10. He’s won a career high five titles this season, was an important part of the Davis Cup team and was seen as a substantial threat at every Grand Slam off clay.
For a short period, he became the top-ranked American male, ahead of Andy Roddick.
Everything seemed to come together for Blake in 2006, except for a spot in the final four of the Grand Slam.
He’s not boastful and rarely pounds his chest. He has the quiet confidence of a Roger Federer, not the bravado of a Rafael Nadal.
"Being a top 10 player, No. 1 American, I understand the pressure that comes with it,” Blake said. “I understand guys are gunning for me. There's no reason to add to their incentive... I don't want to sound like I'm not confident, because I'm confident if I'm playing well. If I'm playing my best tennis, I can match up with just about anybody in the world. Obviously Federer on his best day is tough for anyone to beat. On my best day, I think I'm pretty darn tough to beat. But there is a chance I can go out, play just a God-awful match and someone's going to beat me in that case. It doesn't even have to be awful. It could be my 90% and I'm going to lose probably, unless the other guy's having a bad day, too. It's just that close out here. That's why I downplay it, because I realize how close it is, how much it comes down to just a few points in every single match."
In five different weeks this year, Blake did win those critical points. He won titles in Sydney, Las Vegas, Indianapolis (scoring his first win over Roddick), Bangkok and Stockholm.
Coming off two critical victories in the United States first round win over Romania in the Davis Cup the week before the SAP Open, Blake was stunned by Jimmy Wang. But he regrouped in Las Vegas, taking another career first, a hard fought final round victory over his nemesis, former SAP Open champ Lleyton Hewitt.
"James has taken his game to another level," US Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said.
“James’ best tennis is ahead of him,” added Roddick. “The way he moves and strikes the ball and how good of an athlete he is, on paper, he’s a lot better than most guys.”
But if Blake wants to be more than just a well-liked guy in the locker room and in the stands, he has to do what Roddick has done – reach a series of Slam finals and win one.
In three out of the four Grand Slams in 2006, he lost to men he’s arguably better than – Tommy Robredo in Australia, Gael Monfils at the French Open and Max Mirnyi at Wimbledon.
At the US Open, he gave Federer all he could handle in the quarterfinals in a 7-6 (7), 6-0, 6-7 (9), 6-4 loss. Like he did the year prior against Andre Agassi in the same round, Blake thrilled the night crowd, but couldn’t deliver at crunch time against a superior player.
“It's tough to lose when you're playing all right, but it's a good feeling to know that I'm close to Roger," said Blake, who also fell to the nine-time Slam champ at Indian Wells and Miami.
There are few late bloomers left in the men’s game, but Blake might be one of those. He considers himself to be a lousy junior who didn’t really learn to play the game at a high level until he went to Harvard.
He’s had a steady climb up the charts during this millennium and if he keeps progressing the way he has, he just may find the secret to be a top five player and consistent contender at the majors. He hits his forehand harder than just about anyone out there and has improved his backhand and return a great deal. He might also find his way to his first SAP Open crown in 2007.
With Agassi now retired, it’s up to Blake and Roddick to shoulder the load for US tennis.
"I hope I'm one of those types of players," he said.
Both James Blake and Andy Roddick will join the tournament’s defending champion Andy Murray and world’s former #1 ranked player Marat Safin at the 2007 SAP Open to be held February 12-18 at HP Pavilion at San Jose. Ticket packages to the 2007 SAP Open are on sale now by calling (408) ACE-2121. For more information about the SAP Open, check out the official tournament Web site at www.sapopentennis.com