Blake would have to win the first five setter of his career to get past Gonzalez. Maybe he should have taken some inspiration from Peyton Manning.

James Blake was trying to get past Fernando Gonzalez and into the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and he was having a few problems. He had triple set point in the first set but ended up losing the set 7-5. In the first game of the second set, Gonzalez hit a short cross court shot and conceded the point but Blake still managed to put the ball into the net. Oy!

Blake had more problems at 4-2 in the second set. He was up 40-0 in the game but Gonzalez fed him soft junk balls and Blake hit them out to lose the game and give up his service break advantage. Gonzalez broke him again to go up 5-4 then served out to go up two sets to none.

At the very least, Blake would have to win the first five setter of his career to get past Gonzalez. Maybe he should have taken some inspiration from Peyton Manning. They’ve been saying Manning can’t win the big one since he played college ball at Tennessee, but after he led the Indianapolis Colts from 18 points down against New England to a victory and a trip to the Super Bowl, he is the toast of the NFL.

I’ve been following Peyton Manning since his days at Tennessee. I knew his father was a famous football player and I also knew that Manning the son was obsessed with football. A post-game date with his girlfriend consisted of sitting in his dorm room watching the game he had just played on television. There was some question whether Manning or Ryan Leaf would be the first player taken in the 1998 NFL draft but that was just the p.r. machine working, Manning was and is the quintessential NFL quarterback and Leaf is long gone.

Being a sports star is a tough road and, to some degree, mirrors the struggles we all face day to day. That’s why I follow sports, to watch athletes figure out how to overcome adversity and win a championship. Each athlete’s career is a biography I can follow as it unfolds and here was Manning, a two-time MVP who already has a number of NFL passing records yet all you heard about him was, “he can’t win the big one.” As Manning said, the only thing that matters is “what have you done for me lately”.

Manning’s teams had been good teams in the past but the New England Patriots had been better and then life intervened. At the end of last season after the team started out 13-1, the son of Colts head coach Tony Dungy committed suicide. A personal tragedy can sometimes motivate a team but suicide is something different. It carries a hopelessness with it and that begets despair, the opposite of motivation.

Life intervened on James Blake too. He cracked a vertebrae in his neck running into a stanchion while chasing a ball on a tennis court and during his recovery, his father died of cancer. Shortly after his father’s death, he woke up with a painful case of shingles that blurred his vision.

Blake overcame all that and ended last year ranked number four in the world after getting to the Tennis Masters final. The next step was to win a five set match and make it to the semifinals – or final – of a slam. But he wasn’t ready.

He didn’t serve well against Gonzalez and he put easy balls into the net. Anyone can do that but his demeanor was even more telling. He was muted as if he was thinking too much. After the match he said things like, “At that point, yeah, I felt like maybe the breaks were going to start going my way, maybe I’m going to come back and get this set.” If you’re trying to break through to a new level, it could well be a struggle – look at Manning, he had to come from 18 points down – and you’ll be on the wrong end of it if you’re counting on getting a break.

No matter, Blake has shown us that he gets better at his own pace and I have another ongoing biography to follow. I’m looking forward to jumping up and down when he finally breaks through just as I did when Manning got his trip to the Super Bowl and Amelie Mauresmo won her first slam.

It could end differently; Blake could retire without a slam. But I’d bet the house on a semifinal or two and, for him, that could be victory enough.

See also:
2007 Australian Open: The Americans Are Coming!
The Yanks Step It Up in Melbourne
2007 Australian Open: Loosey Goosey Young And Talented
2007 Australian Open: Rubbermade
The Australian Open: Early Rounds
2007 Australian Open: Second Life

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