2006 Masters Cup: Blake gets hot

We’ve been talking about makeovers here at Tennis Diary in honor of Andy Roddick’s transition from power baseliner to serve and volleyer. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but only a bit considering he came to net sixty times against Ivan Ljubicic. Gotta give it to Jimmy Connors, he has Roddick believing. If there’s anything Jimmy had, it was faith in himself and that was largely due to his mother’s faith in him. I expected Jimmy to turn Andy into a more aggressive player, though I never guessed it would happen so soon, but I didn’t figure out Jimmy’s greatest gift.

Without his first serve, Blake is only as good as a Davydenko but with slightly inferior footwork.

At the press conference announcing Jimmy and Andy’s partnership, Jimmy said he wanted to pass on what his mother gave him. I assumed he was talking about attitude and skill. But what he was talking about was faith. Andy now has faith that he can be a top-rank player and the change in his game flows from that.

James Blake has a similar figure in his life: his longtime coach Brian Barker. We tend to expect immediate results in tennis. After watching teenager John McEnroe get to the semifinals at Wimbledon and a teenager Rafael Nadal gobble up tournaments, we want more of that and as soon as possible. But after Blake played nine best-of-five matches without a victory then disappeared against Max Mirnyi at Wimbledon – after going up two sets to one, he lost the last two sets 6-1, 6-0 – I wrote Blake off. He could certainly stay in the top ten but he wouldn’t get any big titles because he can’t deal with the pressure.

Blake and Barker, however, were pleased with his progress and they were right. Blake’s match today with Nikolay Davydenko explains why.

The match started with five straight breaks before Davydenko finally held serve. Blake couldn’t get his first serve in and he was winning exactly 23% of the points on his second serve. He didn’t hold serve until three games into the second set.

Here’s what happens when a power player isn’t serving well. In the second set, Blake got into a long rally with Davydenko and tried everything he could to end the point. He moved Davydenko corner to corner, tried to wrong foot him and even hit a short shot or two. Didn’t work. On the thirty-first stroke, Blake put the ball into the net. Without his first serve, Blake is only as good as a Davydenko but with slightly inferior footwork.

And this is where we see Blake’s makeover. He was calm and patient. He’s not like Marat Safin and Tommy Haas, in fact, he’s rather gentlemanly. His flameouts are more silent, he just goes away. Today he didn’t go away despite playing terribly against a player who’d never beaten him in four tries.

Blake’s serve slowly improved and he hit a beautiful return winner to break Davydenko and get back on serve. As his serve improved, so did his ground strokes. This is a rule that should have a name: when you don’t serve well, the rest of your game goes to hell. Feel free to leave naming suggestions in the comments section. With Davydenko serving at 4-5, Blake broke him again to win the second set and even the match.

Here’s another reason why calm and patience pay off, if watching Roger Federer win three of the four slams this year wasn’t reason enough. If you hang around long enough, you might get lucky.

Davydenko started to have problems in the third set. His left leg bothered him and he was breathing hard. After the match he said, “I’m not ready for Shanghai physically.” Gee Nikolay, do you think that’s because you play every tournament in sight? He’s a tough guy, he’s not like other players who call the trainer when their shoes are untied, and he hung in there to get to 5-5 in the third set. But he wasn’t quite right.

With Davydenko serving to stay in the match at 5-6, Blake ripped one of those absurd, inside out backhand returns. Davydenko seemed a bit shell-shocked and gave Blake two match points. Blake got another match point when he lunged at a wide serve and somehow hit a winner down the line. Now Davydenko really was shell-shocked and hit an easy forehand out. Blake had a 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 win and was into the semifinals.

This reminds me of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. They lost seven straight games in September and crawled into the playoffs only to get hot and win their first Word Series since 1982. Blake backed into the final eight and a spot in Shanghai when Fernando Gonzalez and Tommy Haas couldn’t win at Paris and now he’s the first player into the semifinals.

As far as Blake’s concerned, I’m sure he thinks he’s right on schedule.

See Also: Yanks On Fire In Shanghai