The US Open Series has been step-up time for the American men — as in ‘Is anyone going to step up and become even a threat to win a big tournament this summer?’
Andy Roddick won Washington a few weeks ago, where another U.S. hope John Isner, served his way to the final almost straight out of college. But that was Washington — no offense D.C., but unless you’re a Masters Series event, you’re going to see watered-down fields that don’t include the best in tennis — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, etc.
But on Saturday night at the Masters Series-Cincinnati, one player finally stepped up this summer big-time in James Blake, who topped fellow Top 10er Nikolay Davydenko in heavy-handed fashion 6-4, 6-2. Cincy, as most Masters Series events, includes virtually every Top 40 player on tour.
Now Blake plays hot-and-cold tennis, and if you’re a Blake fan, you’ve got to live with it, unlike ESPN commentators who lambast the American for being “too aggressive” when his forehand is off, but scream in orgiastic delight “What a shotmaker!” and “Hello!” when the forehand and backhand are on. “Controlled aggression” is the term commentators like to use to describe Blake when he is playing well. Blake and long-time coach Brian Barker would probably term it simply “playing well,” because Blake is going to continue pulling the trigger even at seemingly inopportune times — and when he’s on, the commentators will gush, and when he’s not, they will gnash their teeth and say ‘What is he thinking?’
Blake has had a pretty poor year thus far as top players go, winning once in three finals in minor events, and until this week, failing to reach a quarterfinal at a Masters Series event or Slam. Now that things have clicked this week, Blake says you’re going to get more of the same in the Cincinnati final against Roger Federer.
“Even if my errors are going up, I’m the one controlling it,” said Blake after beating Davydenko Saturday night. “That’s something that’s going to happen when your playing a little more aggressive.”
Translation: ‘Grin and bear it people. The strategy is that I’m going to hit forehand winners, or I’m going to miss. Let’s all hope for the former more than the latter.’
“I think I have the crowd support, so that’s going to help,” said Blake, who had fans behind ESPN’s commentary booth chanting “James! James! James!” in a moment that kind of resembled…a top-tier American sport that fans are really into. “When I get into a final I know I’m playing great tennis.”
Blake joked about ESPN commentators’ overuse of the term “controlled aggression.”
“I wish all the time I had control over it,” Blake said. “I’m still going for my shots, I made some errors tonight.”
ESPN commentator and U.S. Davis Cup coach Patrick McEnroe — surprise surprise — picks Blake to beat Federer in the Cincinnati final. Speaking of wrong picks, I picked Sam “Can’t Close” Querrey to beat Blake in the quarterfinal, when the 6-foot-6 “Queer Eye” (that’s how the closed captioning on the bar TV I was watching the match on transcribed it) won the first set, and as is his wont against top players, lost in three. When both Querrey and American compatriot Amer Delic (who this week beat Ivan Ljubicic 6-1 in the first before losing the match) learn to maintain their mental composure during an entire match, the U.S. will have two new Top 20 residents.
To Blake’s credit he knows he can’t beat Federer from the baseline, and said his strategy Sunday will be to get to the net first and attack second serves.
“I need to take the net away from him,” Blake said.
Blake is no Pat Rafter or Stefan Edberg when it comes to transition game, but he holds his own and then some on the doubles court (even though he is 3-4 in matches this year). Federer for his part has been off his game almost all week, yet he’s still in the final, a testament to his mental fortitude, which took a hit last week with the loss in the Masters Series-Canada championship match against Novak Djokovic.
Federer is vulnerable. Blake has momentum, lots of it. Cincinnati has a Federer-Blake final rather than a tournament-suicide-watch Federer-Davydenko Sunday. The Cincinnati crowds are going apeshit. And the ATP has a Sunday final featuring an American on a major network (CBS) rather than cable. Would it kill the ATP, which has a big opportunity here, to scramble and throw some 15-minute Blake-Federer promos on other U.S. networks to publicize the occasion? Like other sports do? Run with the opportunity in the U.S. rather than maintaining the let-fans-come-to-us status quo?
Whether Blake can prolong Federer’s agitated mental state of not on Sunday, the hot-and-cold Blake is hot at the right time with little more than a week before the start of the US Open. Time for U.S. tennis’ powers-that-be to proactively jump on the opportunity — since with the way the winds are blowing out of tennis-hungry, U.S. players in major televised finals could be rare and beautiful things in the coming years.
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